POLA, Oriental Mindoro — Residents on the western Philippine island of Mindoro are still reeling from a massive oil spill from a sunken Philippine tanker, as government and private-sector responders scramble to determine the extent of damage to livelihoods and marine resources.
The Philippine government has banned fishing, the islanders' main source of income, and prevented people from entering the water since the MT Princess Empress, which was carrying a cargo of 800,000 liters of intermediate fuel oil, encountered engine trouble and sank to a depth of 400 meters on Feb. 28.
Authorities said the oil spill had reached coastal areas in at least three western Philippine provinces, affecting over 100,000 people.
Jennifer Cruz, mayor of Pola where half of the coastal town showed traces of the oil, said the ban on fishing could remain in effect as long as the sunken vessel is out there. The government began paying residents of the town around P300 per day to scoop the oil and put up fence booms as the spill is beginning to threaten mangroves.
In two weeks, thick, black sludge collected from the shore had filled up over 700 rice sacks and plastic drums.
"But it's a domino effect," Cruz said, as the ban on fishing has pushed up the prices of other goods. She said resorts had also been forced to cancel bookings, just as tourism was picking up following the COVID-19 pandemic.
In the hardest-hit village Buhay na Tubig, the sludge has coated the coastline and residents say the stench worsens by the day. Families have moved far from the shore or left the island due to breathing difficulties.
"If this (situation) goes on for a year, we might end up eating only rice porridge," said Ricky Baleros, 53, who relies on his catches of scad to support his wife and their two children.
With no fishing, Baleros doubts government rations of rice and canned goods will last long.
"Even if they pay us (for collecting the oil), that's not going to sustain us," he said.
The International Tanker Owners Pollution Federation, a London-based oil spill responder that has sent a team to the Philippines, told Kyodo News that a remotely operated underwater vehicle will be deployed later this week to assess the condition of the tanker and determine exactly how much oil is leaking.
Japan, for its part, has dispatched a team of oil disaster responders to help the Philippines contain the spill. On Monday, the Japanese government handed over dozens of oil snares, oil blotters and protective equipment.
Daisuke Goto, who is leading the team, said the Philippines is taking "adequate" measures such as placing a J-shaped oil fence in the vicinity of the sunken tanker to contain the spread.
Following an aerial assessment with Philippine officials on Sunday, Goto said he saw some streaks of oil but no large slicks.