Govt hands tied as Sulpicio mulls fate of sunken ship


Posted at Jul 01 2008 11:38 AM | Updated as of Jul 01 2008 07:38 PM

The government's search and retrieval operations on the sunken M/V Princess of the Stars remained on the shelf on Tuesday as it awaited action from ship owner Sulpicio Lines Inc. as it deliberated on what to do with the ill-fated vessel in the waters of Romblon province.

Transportation Undersecretary Elena Bautista, head of the inter-agency task force on the ill-fated ship, said that the government's retrieval operations for will remain suspended until Wednesday or Thursday.

Bautista said Sulpicio Lines had promised her that by Wednesday or Thursday, it will have a decision to refloat the sunken ship or simply drill a hole into the hulk to scoop out its undisclosed shipment of the highly toxic endosulfan, a hazardous pineapple pesticide.

"I asked Sulpicio Lines if they can make a final direction (to drill into the ship or refloat it) by Wednesday or Thursday. They have given their commitment that they will decide the soonest possible time," she told radio dzMM.

Bautista admitted that all the task force could do is ask Sulpicio Lines to act. She said the government's role is to ensure that the marine environment i, as well as the residents of the province, will not be affected by the hazards of the sunken ship.

She said she also wants to hasten the retrieval of the trapped bodies inside the sunken ferry for the "peace of mind" of the victims' families.

Bautista said Sulpicio Lines is now locked in a legal discussion with its insurer, Oriental Assurance Corp., which is barring the firm from deciding on what to do with the sunken ship.

She, however, hinted that the government may force the refloating of the sunken ship if it turns out to be the most effective way to retrieve the bodies and the endosulfan shipment.

She said she will present the idea of refloating the ship to President Arroyo during a Cabinet meeting in Iloilo later Tuesday.

Ship abandonment

Ma. Victoria Lim-Florido, Sulpicio Lines' lawyer, said the shipping company had declared the sunken vessel “a total loss” and has filed a valid notice of abandonment with the insurance company.

By filing the valid notice of abandonment, the shipping company is effectively turning over the responsibility of the sunken ship to the insurance firm.

There were reports that Sulpicio Lines has been rejecting the idea of refloating the sunken ship because the insurer might deny its valid notice of abandonment and discover that the ferry may still be salvaged.

Florido denied the allegations as she revealed that the shipping company had been talking to a private firm that specializes in refloating capsized vessels.

Bautista confirmed Florido’s claim. “Sulpicio is talking with experts. I think they are trying to see na ma-refloat ito.”

The undersecretary said that drilling into the sunken ship may be dangerous because they still don’t know the true condition of the chemical shipment.

She, however, said refloating a vessel may take months. She cited the bombed SuperFerry 14, which was refloated after six months.

Florido, meanwhile, added that the insurance company doesn’t need to approve the notice of abandonment.

“The insurer doesn’t have to determine if the notice of abandonment is valid. We have transferred and ceded our rights over the hull and machinery of the ship,” she said.