THOSE who have been to Guimaras swear by its beauty.
“It is absolutely breathtaking,” says Rep. JR Nereus Acosta of the island-province in Western Visayas, whose coast was where a tanker — carrying two million liters of low-grade bunker oil — sank on August 11.
On the oil spill’s path were more than 200 kilometers of lush coastline, 1,128 hectares of mangrove swamps, conservation areas, fishing grounds, endangered fauna species, and pristine coral reefs. Thousands of fisherfolk have lost their livelihood.
An environmental catastrophe has come to Guimaras, threatening its environment and people. Rep. Acosta, who had just visited the island, says the sight of the 20-kilometer-long oil slick is “saddening.”
But, two weeks after the Petron-chartered tanker went down, it is not the sight of the spilt oil that is most frightening. “It is what one does not see that is most tragic,” says Dr. Perry Ong, a wildlife biologist and director of the Institute of Biology at the University of the Philippines.
Acosta and Ong were speakers at a forum Monday morning on the Guimaras disaster. (Click here for more of Rep. Acosta’s photographs of the island and the oil spill; and here for Dr. Ong’s presentation.)
Smothering; toxic effects
Ong says the oil slick serves as a physical barrier, depriving the marine ecosystem of the sun needed for photosynthesis, and in the process, causing life to smother. Ong has conducted research about oil pollution, obtaining valuable data from the International Tankers Oil Pollution Federation.
Those at highest risk of contamination, Ong says, are the animals and plants that could come into contact with a contaminated sea surface: “The fish can swim away (from the slick); but in most danger are the marine mammals and reptiles, the birds that feed by diving or form flocks on the sea, and the marine life on the shorelines.”
For example, marine mammals and reptiles, such as turtles, are particularly vulnerable to the adverse effects from oil contamination because of their need to surface to breathe and to leave the water to breed.
But the physical contamination and smothering is not all there is, Ong explains; the oil spill also threatens to cause toxic effects.
Ong says that most toxic components in oil tend to be those lost rapidly through evaporation when oil is spilled. As a result, lethal concentrations of toxic components that may cause large-scale deaths among marine life, “are relatively rare, localised and short-lived.”
Still, he says, prolonged exposure to a concentration of oil, or oil components, may cause “sub-lethal effects” that may still harm the ability of individual marine organisms to function normally, reproduce, or grow.
Oil spills research
Ong admits that it will be difficult to assess the particular effects of an oil spill, as the ability of flora and fauna to withstand such contamination is highly varied. But because all life is interconnected, he emphasizes, the impact of oil spills is always for the long-term.
“That is why we need to do the science of oil spills,” he says, stressing that the country is not lacking in the technical expertise to conduct extensive research.
He ticks off some of the key questions: “How will the currents affect the contamination? What about the changes in wind direction?”
Such scientific inquiries naturally take a long time, and should be started immediately.
In 1989, for example, Ong says, the Exxon Valdez hit a reef off the Alaskan coast, splitting its side open and releasing gallons of crude oil into the sea.
It took scientists all of 12 years to complete a comprehensive study of the spill and its impact.
Rep. Acosta echoes Dr. Ong’s call for scientific research on Guimaras. He laments, “Our Coast Guard is not even equipped with the proper sonar to be able to detect the exact site of the sunken tanker.”
Research is necessary so that the impact of such oil spills can be fully understood, and their harmful effects, mitigated.
“The environment is the only social security of the poor,” Acosta says. “If the environment is destroyed, their lives are destroyed too.”
Acosta called for amendments to existing legislation, “so that we can more easily pin down corporate liability.” He stressed that the general principle still is, “the polluter pays: “That is environmental justice.”
The Population, Health, and Environment Network, which organized today’s forum, lists its recommended measures:
- Immediately lift the sunken oil tanker off Guimaras’ waters;
- Provide adequate medical attention and health education to the affected communities;
- Allow the participation of civil society in the inter-agency investigation to determine accountable parties and accelerate the prosecution process;
- Make the private sectors involved liable for short- and long-term damages on people’s well-being and diversity. Petron’s private rights to partake in production and trade, should not impede on the collective rights to development and individual rights to health and livelihood. Initially, we must monitor Petron’s commitments to give long-term assistance to Guimaras as a matter of moral, social and legal responsibility;
- Establish a system for monitoring and valuation of the short- and long-term impacts on environment, individuals, and communities.
The environment department has said Petron and the owner of the chartered tanker, MT Solar I, could be slapped with millions of pesos in penalties over the spill.
Petron, for its part, has said it “will take responsibility in addressing the containment and recovery of the oil spill both on land and sea, and more importantly, map out the long-term rehabilitation of the island of Guimaras and other affected areas.”