Mindoro oil spill discussed in the latest SESAM ExChanges highlighting some ways forward

The School of Environmental Science and Management-University of the Philippines Los Baños (SESAM-UPLB) through its Continuing Education and Training Division (CETD) the conducted 9th SESAM Environmental Challenges and Solutions Seminar Series (SESAM ExChanges) last April 25, 2023 via Zoom and Facebook Live.

With the theme Mangroves and Oil Spill: Who foots the Bill after a Disaster?, invited speakers were from different government agencies who spearheaded the immediate response after the sinking of MV Princess Empress last February 28, 2023 off the coastal waters of Naujan, Oriental Mindoro. Based on news reports, the ship was carrying 900,00 liters of industrial oil from Limay, Bataan, enroute to Iloilo when it sunk.

In his welcome message, Dr. Rico C. Ancog, Dean of SESAM, highlighted the urgency of discussing and responding to oil spill in the coast of Oriental Mindoro and how it must be based on science. “Specifically, we are also trying to relate the oil spill incident with how the mangroves are particularly affected given the importance of these bioresources”, Dr. Ancog said.

In his lecture entitled “Science and Technology for Coastal Disasters Response: Oil Spill Modelling in the Philippines, Dr. Cesar L. Villanoy, a Professor at the University of the Philippines Diliman Marine Science Institute and an Academician of the National Academy of Science and Technology, said that in 50 years, oil spill incidence has been decreasing. “There has been a significant improvement by the way accidents or oil spills are prevented”, Dr. Villanoy said. He added that the MS Princess Empress oil spill is already considered a large spill since it is carrying more than 800 tons of industrial oil.  

Dr. Villanoy, who has research interest on ocean modelling and applications in ocean productivity, habitat connectivity and pollution, explained that the rate of spreading of the spill will depend on the type of oil, sea current, wind and turbulent mixing. “During the time when the northeast monsoon was still blowing, the model was forecasting the trajectories of the oil from northeast Mindoro towards the southern Mindoro, to Caluya and Semirara Islands, to Cuyo and eventually Taytay in Palawan. But when the northeast monsoon weakened towards the third week of March, everything shifted back to the north… the oil reached the coast of Calapan, even the Verde Islands, Tingloy. In a sense, the model still made a reasonable forecast,” Dr. Villanoy stressed. He added that the available global modeling tools are not perfect, and the models used in the Mindoro oil spill were based on global model data and may not represent currents and winds in the small islands and passages in the Philippines.

In addition, the second speaker Coast Guard Lt. Gerson B. Gamas, Legal Officer of the Marine Environmental Protection Command (MEPCOM) of the Philippine Coast Guard, elaborated more on environmental enforcement related to oil spill in the Philippines. He also emphasized that the MEPCOM focuses on the threats of  marine environment pollution coming from oil tankers/vessels, oil exploration, refineries/depots, power plants, shipyards and coastal manufacturing plants. He also introduced to the audience the National Operations Center for Oil Pollution (NOCOP) that is tasked to implement the provisions of PD 600 (Marine Pollution Decree).

Further, CG Lt. Gamas also highlighted that the Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) has coordinated with other agencies in filing administrative and civil liabilities of the owner of MV Princess Empress, in which the Department of Justice (DoJ) is now handling. “Fortunately, the owner of the MV Princess Empress has an insurance to avail so it can pay the damages brought about by the oil spill. However, with the insurance money now currently dwindling, the International Oil Pollution Compensation Fund (OPCF) will now initiate the process of the claims of the other affected victims” Atty. Gamas added.

On behalf of Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) Undersecretary Atty. Jonas R. Leones, Director Al O. Orolfo of the DENR Foreign-Assisted and Special Projects Service (FASPS) shared a presentation covering the environmental policy and governance of mangroves in the Philippines with specific emphasis on accountability mechanisms during oil spill disasters. Citing EO 192 Series of 1987 (DENR Reorganization Act), Dir. Orolfo explained that mangroves and swamplands in public areas are placed under DENR jurisdiction. “The governance of mangroves are based on the definition of the land uses or purposes in the country. For instance, in the case of national parks, mangroves in these protected areas are governed by PAMB or the Protected Areas Management Board,” Dir. Orolfo said. However, he added that mangroves with area less than 500 has, the enforcement of community-based laws are under the local government.

Dir. Orolfo also explained that based on records, oil spills caused mortality of mangroves, seagrasses, among others. He emphasized that a mangrove habitat takes longest time to recover (10 years or more) as compared to the planktons, sand beaches, exposed rocky shores, sheltered rocky shores, and saltmarsh which may only take weeks to around five years to recover. 

In the closing and synthesis component of the event, Dr. Alma Lorelei D. Abejero, University Researcher I at SESAM, enumerated some major takeaways and ways forward so oil spill can be mitigated namely, 1) the need to map out the oil spill hot spots, 2) proper checking of the vessel to avoid negligence and minimize the risk of oil spill, and 3) increase the capacity of relevant government agencies to effectively respond to oil spill  disasters, among others. This 9th SESAM ExChanges was graced by more than 160 participants both from Zoom and Facebook Live. 

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