The MT Princess Empress, which sank three weeks ago with its cargo of 800,000 liters of industrial fuel oil, has been found, officials said Tuesday, as the slick reached waters known for their rich marine life.
The tanker sank on Feb. 28 off Mindoro, and diesel fuel and thick oil from the vessel have since contaminated the waters and beaches of Oriental Mindoro province and other islands.
The tanker was found by a Japanese remotely operated underwater vehicle (ROV), Oriental Mindoro Gov. Humerlito Dolor said.
The vessel was found 7.7 nautical miles away from Balingawan Point in Naujan, Oriental Mindoro, nearly 400 meters below the waves.
Dolor said he received the first photos showing the exact location of the vessel on Tuesday morning.
The national disaster agency said the ROV would assess the hull’s condition before a decision was made about how to “control the spill from its source.”
The Philippines has sought assistance from several countries, including Japan, the United States and France, to help contain and clean up the slick.
Thousands of hectares of coral reefs, mangroves and seaweed could be endangered, officials have said.
Department of National Defense chief Carlito Galvez Jr. said in a situational report to President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. that the DND is “on top” of the oil spill crisis.
Galvez said his United States counterpart, Lloyd Austin, gave his word that the US is committed to provide aid to the country through its humanitarian assistance and disaster response (HARD) team.
The DND, through the National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council and local government units in Mindoro, have raised their cleanup efforts to mitigate the effects of the spill in the region, he said.
Galvez is also the concurrent chairperson of the NDRRMC.
Oil spill booms made of hay, human hair and other materials have been deployed to try to protect coastal waters that people in the fishing and tourism industries rely on for their livelihoods.
Oil has been spotted as far away as Casian Island, off the north coast of the western island of Palawan, about 350 kilometers southwest of where the tanker sank.
As feared, oil has also drifted north to the Verde Island Passage – a busy sea lane between Mindoro and the Philippines’ main island of Luzon.
Environment Secretary Maria Antonia Loyzaga said previously that the area was “globally recognized” for its marine biodiversity.
The Philippine Coast Guard said clean-up operations on Monday removed oil from the shores of three villages on Verde Island, which is popular with divers.
Oil also has been spotted further along the passage at Tingloy municipality on Maricaban Island, part of Batangas province.
Residents and coast guard personnel have been removing oil-coated seaweed and other debris from affected areas.
Tens of thousands of people have been affected by the spill, with scores falling ill. The government is distributing food packs and other assistance.
Among the hardest hit are fishermen, who have been ordered to stay on shore until they can fish safely.
The number of people who have gotten ill from the oil spill in Oriental Mindoro increased to 191, the Department of Health (DOH) said Tuesday.
During a press briefing, DOH officer-in-charge Maria Rosario Vergeire said 14 more cases were recorded as of March 20.
Of the tally, some 101 cases have recovered while others are being monitored, she added.
Vergeire said residents had reported experiencing respiratory and dermal irritation and cramps and dizziness after oil washed up on their shores.
Only one person has been admitted to hospital for aggravated asthma, but he has since been discharged.
It is not known how much diesel and oil have leaked into the water.
Office of Civil Defense Administrator Undersecretary Ariel Nepomuceno said it would be advantageous for the government to buy an ROV, worth about P40 million, so that the country would have the capability to respond to such disasters.
Meanwhile, President Marcos promised to sustain the assistance being extended to the families affected by the oil spill in Oriental Mindoro that already reached provinces in the regions of Mimaropa (Mindoro, Marinduque, Romblon, Palawan) and Western Visayas.
As of Sunday, the oil spill has affected 32,661 families in Mimaropa and Western Visayas, the Region VI Task Force on Oil Spill reported during an emergency meeting in Iloilo City on Monday.
The national government, local government units (LGUs), non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and other partners provided a total of P28.3 million worth of humanitarian assistance to the affected families, the task force reported.
Under President Marcos’ directive, different government agencies are carrying out programs aimed at assisting the local population affected by the oil spill.
The task force said during the meeting that among the agencies involved in the humanitarian operation are the Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD), Department of Labor and Employment (DOLE) and the local government units in Western Visayas.
The task force said the DSWD is implementing a 45-day cash-for-work program involving 7,198 families (including off-site), which started last March 6. It said the beneficiaries could also avail of emergency cash transfers and family food packs.
Various government agencies are coordinating with the International Tankers Owners Pollution Federation Ltd. (ITOPH) on the conduct of a massive clean-up drive, and identification of the debris staging area and a dumpsite.
A private contractor for the oil spill clean-up is hiring 100 local workers to help the community.
Galvez said the Philippine government will also continue to seek the expertise and technical support of other partner countries, such as France and the United Kingdom, in containing the oil spill.
Among the experts who arrived in the Philippines are five members of the US Coast Guard Pacific Strike Team.
The embassy said American experts will determine the most effective method and equipment to contain and clean up the oil spill from the sunken tanker MT Princess Empress.
Two members of the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) will work closely with the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) in conducting rapid environmental assessments of the affected areas.
Funded by the US Agency for International Development (USAID), they will also identify priority areas at risk of environmental damage and assess needs for ecosystem restoration.
A US Navy supervisor of salvage and diving will complete the eight-man team. According to the US embassy, he will evaluate the technical parameters required to support the possible deployment of a remotely operated vehicle.
On Tuesday, the eight experts arrived in Pola, Oriental Mindoro. Before their deployment, they received a briefing from the Philippine Coast Guard and the Japan Disaster Relief Expert Team in Manila.
“When vessels are in deep water, as in this case, cleaning up the remaining oil becomes a complicated issue,” Commander Stacey Crecy, commanding officer of the USCG Pacific Strike Team, said.
In other developments:
* The Philippine Coast Guard said the owner of the tanker was able to show them a certificate of public convenience (CPC) for the MT Princess Empress but if it was a fake one, then the owners must be made to explain. The PCG has been under fire for allowing the tanker to set sail.
* The Climate Change Commission (CCC) has warned authorities on the use of chemical-based dispersants to break down the spreading oil spill in Oriental Mindoro province, saying this could cause harm to the marine ecosystem. Commissioner Albert dela Cruz Sr. said that when sprayed on a surface oil slick, the dispersant breaks the oil down into small droplets that more readily mix with water. He said the droplets do not actually reduce the amount of oil entering the environment but push the effects of the spill underwater and this could have harmful effects on the marine environment and ecosystem.
* Rep. Gerville Luistro of Batangas called for an aggressive clean-up of the oil spill that affected Mabini, Bauan, Lobo, San Luis, San Pascual and Tingloy, all municipalities in her district. “It is time for us to unite in bayanihan and be aggressive in containing and cleaning the oil spill. I am sure the people in our district as well as the rest of Batangas, the islands of Mindoro, Romblon and nearby provinces, would volunteer and work to save the Verde Island Passage,” Luistro said.
* Justice Secretary Jesus Crispin Remulla on Tuesday said the government is determined to undertake a cleanup on its own if the owner of the sunken tanker does not take action. Remulla lamented that the owner of the tanker has not acted 21 days into the disaster to provide an ROV.