September 21, 2006 · Posted in: Environment Watch, In the News

Saving Guimaras

TEARS welled up in his eyes when Dr. Resurreccion Sadaba saw “his mangrove tree,” a very rare specie and the only one of its kind on the whole Guimaras island, covered with thick, black oil.

“I have been taking care of it for years. The (mangrove tree) is so important because its roots build a kind of hall (where) the fish can shelter in,” said Sadaba, days after MT Solar I spilled over 200,000 liters of bunker oil fuel in the shores of Guimaras, triggering the worst oil spill tragedy in Philippine history. “It’s so sad when you have a beautiful place like Guimaras and you see it all spoiled within hours.”

According to the National Disaster Coordinating Council (NDCC), the spill has damaged about 234 kilometers of coastline, 1,143 hectares of marine reserves, 478 hectares of mangroves, and 16 square kilometers of coral reefs.

Of particular concern to conservationists like Sadaba is the Taclong Marine Reserve, where the University of the Philippines Visayas runs a marine biological station. The reserve is one of the seriously hit areas by the oil disaster. It is a “fragile ecosytem” covering hundreds of hectares off the Guimaras south coast and home to some 144 fish species and other maritime animals.

In a forum held at UP Diliman yesterday, Sadaba, who is a mangrove specialist from the UP Visayas, reports that about 90 percent of the reserve has been contaminated by the oil fuel.

Photos taken by Sadaba show oil still floating in some areas of Taclong Island, with the roots and branches of several mangrove trees covered with oil; some plant leaves have turned yellow, an immediate symptom of oil exposure, which will lead to defoliation and eventually, death.

The good news, he shares, is that the oil has stayed only on the surface and has not seeped deep into mangrove sediments, which can make the clean-up more difficult and may harm organisms that feed in or feed off the sediments. And the “oil slick” in the water has been reduced to a “sheen,” he adds, largely because of the clean-up efforts of various groups.

Sadaba, who heads the UP Visayas team tasked by the government to assess the damage caused by the oil spill, says they have yet to study the impact of the disaster on areas outside the reserve. The oil has spread in various directions, he explains, and has now affected neighboring municipalities in Iloilo and Negros Occidental. (See image.)

By November 28, his team will have to present its initial findings to President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo. The “rapid three-month assessment” alone costs P10 million, Sadaba reveals, and several millions more will be needed for long-term study; he says monitoring the biodiversity alone could take up to 40 years.

The damage the disaster has caused on the lives of the villagers, majority of whom are fishermen, is another matter altogether. Aside from affecting their source of livelihood, the National Poison Management and Control Center warned that “exposure to bunker oil may result in cancer, leukemia and congenital anomalies of unborn babies in the long-term.” In fact, in two to three years, “different types of cancer can happen,” it reports; the immediate effects of exposure may also result in respiratory and skin ailments.

Sadaba says even greater damage may happen if the sunken tanker, which authorities say still contains more than one million liters of oil, will not be salvaged soon. MT Solar I, hired by Petron Corp. to transport 2.19 million liters of bunker fuel oil, sank on August 11 and remains at the bottom of the Guimaras Strait, some 640 meters below.

Petron, the country’s largest oil refiner, is still exploring options on how the tanker, or at least the oil in the tanker, could be removed. Petron has three options: siphon off the fuel with underwater hoses; refloat the tanker; or cement it to the sea bottom with a quick-drying cement.

According to reports, the tanker is insured by a foreign firm, which still has to submit its recommendations to the Philippine government. “Even a timeframe of three months may be too early,” Petron officials earlier said.

“The immediate concern is to remove the threat in the area. As long as (the tanker) is there, the entire Guimaras is still threatened,” says Sadaba, adding that all efforts to save Guimaras will be in vain if the tanker will not be removed.

He also says that all the oil must first be removed before bioremediation, a process using fungi or bacteria to decompose toxic pollutants such as petroleum hydrocarbons, could be done.

Sadaba further suggests that Petron should secure commercially produced oil spill booms–which serve as mechanical barriers to enclose water areas affected by the spill–for the long-term protection of the shores. Only a 200-meter boom, which costs some P5 million, has so far been set up. Villagers have improvised booms made of hay, enclosed in cloth or jute sack, but Sadaba says they were not that effective.

Petron, he adds, should also dispose the pile of oil-covered debris packed in plastic bags left in some areas of the island. Although according to Petron, it has already cleaned over 126 kilometers of the Guimaras shoreline. Just yesterday, it reported that some 500 metric tons of debris were shipped out, totaling to 1,700 metric tons of oil-covered debris so far collected over a month after spill.

Petron and Sunshine Maritime Development Corp., the owner of the tanker, have also been recently charged before the Pollution Adjudication Board for causing environmental damage to the island.

For Sadaba, the Guimaras disaster is something that “we should all learn from.”

“Definitely, this will not be the last oil spill in the Philippines. We should build scenarios of what to expect and plan,” Sadaba says, stressing that archipelagic countries like the Philippines should be better equipped for disasters such as oil spills.

Meanwhile, Sadaba says saving Guimaras, the Taclong Reserve in particular, is something that would keep him and his team busy “for the next 20 or so years.”

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