MANILA: Philippine authorities are scrambling to contain a looming ecological disaster in the waters of a central province after an oil spill that its president said on Wednesday could take months to clean up.
Dozens of people have fallen sick in coastal villages of Oriental Mindoro after the MT Princess Empress carrying 800,000 liters of industrial fuel oil sank off its coast last week.
The oil has since reached the shores of nearby fishing villages, covering beaches in black sludge. Areas on the coastline were placed under a state of calamity earlier this week to help authorities extend aid to affected communities.
“Hopefully we can finish the cleanup in less than four months,” President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. told reporters, as he announced a financial support scheme for fishermen and women who help with the cleanup effort.
“Fishermen can’t fish now, so they have no livelihood. We have a cash-for-work program for them since they will help with the cleanup.”
He added that the authorities had already located the sunken tanker that plunged 460 meters below sea level.
The Philippine Coast Guard on Wednesday placed an oil containment boom around the spill.
The scale of the environmental harm is still unfolding. Marine scientists at the University of the Philippines estimated that about 36,000 hectares of coral reef, mangroves and seagrass could be at risk from the spill, which according to Greenpeace has already jeopardized the livelihoods of local communities that are dependent on the resource-rich waters.
The worst spill in the country’s history took place in 2006, when the MT Solar I tanker carrying 2 million liters of bunker fuel sank off the southern coast of Guimaras.
It damaged 1,500 hectares of the local ecosystem and severely affected the province’s marine resources and economy.
“It is important to note that oil spills, no matter their size, are permanent disasters,” Greenpeace Philippines campaigner Jefferson Chua told Arab News.
“This is even more concerning as the spill happened in an area with rich biodiversity and sensitive marine ecosystems, and with industrial oil, which is considered to have more severe and long-lasting impacts.”
About 18,000 fishermen and women had already been affected, he added.
“This oil spill, an unfolding environmental and social catastrophe … Twenty-one marine protected areas are confirmed affected in Oriental Mindoro alone,” Chua said.
“We can expect impacts on reduced growth of fish, disruptions in the local food chain, toxification of the environment, suffocation of coral reefs, notwithstanding health and livelihood impacts on communities.”