Sunday, September 24, 2006

Safety Enforced, Distant Timetable Created

There is some good news in regards to the health situation of the workers. The Governor has reportedly started to enforce a minimal requirement on safety equiptment clean-up workers have, which now includes a "self contained breathing aparatus". That seems like a step up, considering the toxicity of the air. I've been forbidden by Peace Corps to go anywhere near the shoreline, so I cannot say with any confidence this new requirement is being enforced to any significant degree, but I hope it is.

It's not quite as good as medicine, and it's definately something that ought to have been put into place from the start, but late is far better than never.

It has been decided that the method of removing the oil from under the water will be to siphon it from the tanker. There are many people discontented because this will leave the tanker itself in the water without plan for removal, but personally I am more concerned that the plan for oil extraction will not begin until November. I only hope that the situation will hold until then.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Health Issues Arise

Last Friday I went to visit Cabalagnan, one of the Barangays hardest hit by the oil spills. What I found there further disturbed me by several magnitudes. Namely I discovered that the health problems of the area were much worse than I had understood. The toxicity levels along that coast are slightly above normal. They are currently past 500 parts per million. The acceptable limit would be .00071. At this toxicity level, the air is of a nature that the wrong breath has the potential to kill a person instantly (or so a senior medical professional explained to us).

According to the press, there has been only one confirmed death resulting from the spill so far, his name was Alejandro Castillo, and he was an asthmatic boy in his second year of life. However, having visited some of the shelters, I believe that there are at least a few more unconfirmed, if not many. One worker I spoke with had just lost her 26-year old son.

There are over 2000 people sick at this point, not enough medicine, and a single doctor for the 22 Barangays of Nueva Valencia. I don't have statistics, but in my experience the average barangay is home to around 250 families. Petron IS giving them plenty of coffee, milk, and canned goods though, I won't fault them for that. But it seems like woefully unmeaningful without giving medicine to the sick and dying. They aren't even providing anything close to adequate protection to the people they are hiring to clean up the spill. Consequently these workers (working for about $3/day) are among the most common population reporting illness, and all immediate health aside, they may be at risk for cancer in the long term.

Two days ago marked a month the tanker has been at the bottom of the sea. Still no solid timeline for removing it. They have yet to even decide on a method. It's still a time bomb. If said bomb goes off, rest assured these depressing blog entries will start coming in spades. I can't imagine what this disaster would be like magnified by 7; I've tried.

Thursday, August 24, 2006

The Bomb Squad Is Coming

I have hope today that the matter of the sunken tanker is well on the way to resolution. A new leak is reported to have sprung in the ship, bleeding out oil at roughly 200 liters/ hour (according to asia pacific news). However, if the tanker can hold on for a few more days, a Japanese ship is en route that may be able to handle the situation. It won't arrive for another 3 days, and their first step will be to assess the situation. No one can say, at this point, how quickly they will be able to do anything once they arrive, but it's a great relief just to know someone is acting upon the situation.

Here's hoping.

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Where's the Bomb Squad?

Things on Guimaras continue to move at a maddening snails pace. Yesterday I was told (casually, by a woman who struck up a conversation on my jeepney) that divers have been deployed to investigate the site of the Solar 1, and although this was hearsay it heartened me nonetheless. Unfortunately, upon visiting the Governor's hall today I was informed that these divers were taking photos on behalf of Greenpeace. The exact reasons for the pictures were unknown to the office, and the representative I spoke to asked of me that should I be in contact with Greenpeace, I let them know that the governor's office would be very interested to see their photographs and hear any assessments they may have made of the site. Other than that, very little has been done about this time bomb 21km off the coast of Guimaras.

The latest estimate puts the amount of oil left in the tanker as 85% of its original cargo. Consequently, the number of individuals I mentioned previously as being effected was significantly lower than Governor Nava's, who said Friday that "More than 4,000 families largely dependant on fishing have been displaced, comprising about 26,000 individuals."

It is outrageous that so much damage has been done, but to think that this is only a prelude of what is to come is unfathomable. Comparing the current state of things to what they may be by the weeks end (but as soon as this hours end) is akin to comparing a horror movie to its trailer.

I've neither heard nor found a good reason that this particular ship is beyond recovery, only that much larger ships in much larger spills have been recovered in the past. If recovering this ship and preventing the imminent threat it poses is not beyond feasible, how can it be that so little is being done beyond simply watching and waiting? This is absolutely incomprehensible.

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Choice Words from Governor Nava

With the help of the Governor's office, I have procured a copy of the speech that Govornor Nava delivered Friday. Published with the permission of his office, I have some excerpts here:

"We shared Guimaras with everyone who valued this great national attraction. This is the reason why we resisted pressires to go the pure industrialization way to development, and opted instead for the agri-tourism route, because we recognized the built-in advantage that Guimaras has in this arena. Through the years we have devoted a sizable chunk of our development fund to improvement of our coastal treasures, from projects in coastal resource management, mangrove reforestation, seaweeds, pearl, crustacean culture salt and shellfish industry. Utmost care was employed to ensure that the generations after us would continue to enjoy the Guimaras that we are enjoying now. [...] We can only watch in horror how oil spill can undo in a few days our initiatives which have taken decades to implement."
"It was only recently that we celebrated our graduation from the club of 20 poorest provinces. Per the most recent National Statistical Coordination Board publication [...] we are placed number 44. [...] Guimaras was specifically mentioned in the latest presidential SONA as a priority province for tourism and infra-support development."

"Teams have already been dispatched to the affected barangays to prepare whatever crude means we can thing of to stop the flow of oil. And as monday dawn breaks, bamboo poles with rice straw, dried grasses, used sacks and clothing -- anything -- were placed as barriers to ward off the creeping menace."

"We are a small province and our available resources for the job are obviously not enough. We are trying to maximize the impace of whatever intervention that we do, but we are candid enough to declare that we cannot do this alone. We need all the support we can get, as our capability to deal with this fortuitous occurance is limited."

Monday, August 21, 2006

Viewing the Clean up: A Less Formal Reporting

The pictures from the previous post all came from the southern tip of Guimaras, where myself and two fellow volunteers went Sunday, August 20th, to see the spill. When I had attended the calamity meeting friday, Governor Nava had come off strongly against the idea of focusing efforts on clean-up before the spill was contained. So it was that I felt more than a little surprised to find, on our arrival, that there was a sizable group of people already on the scene engaging in clean-up in rubber gloves and boots that I understand may have been donated by the red cross. According to one man I spoke to on the scene, the owner of the property (whose name I unfortunately did not think, at the time, to record) the area had already undergone significant cleaning efforts at the time the pictures were taken.

The primary method of clean-up I observed was that oil-soaked plants were being put into a pile. I have no knowledge what will be done with these piles, but one of my fellow volunteers says that they were being stuffed in rice sacks. My understanding is that, at the moment, there is nowhere to bring these sacks. Friday, Governor Nava expressed concern that the storage site for this waste should not be on Guimaras, however the the representative I spoke with in his office Tuesday made it sound as if the site of waste storage would, indeed, be somewhere on the island.

In the upcoming week I will return to this site and see if I can verify some of the things I'm writing here, but for now my clumsy observations will have to make due.

Details of the Spill

On August 11th, 2006 the Solar 1 oil tanker, bearing 2.7 million liters of Bunker oil, sunk off the coast of Guimaras, spilling an estimated 200,000 liters of it’s cargo into the waters. Since then, the currents have covered the southern and eastern coasts of Guimaras in bunker oil, bringing devastation the bountiful coastal resources of the island, and robbing an estimated 10,000 people of their primary livelihood of fishing. It is the largest oil spill in the history of the Philippines.

Early estimates regarding the cleanup of this disaster predict a time table of 3 years. However, such early estimates are uncertain because only a very small amount of the oil has been released from the sunken tanker. The majority still rests within the ship where it sunk, over 1,800 feet down. I attended a crisis meeting on August 18th, and it was clear that the primary crisis at this point is recovering the Solar 1 and preventing the remaining 2.5 million liters of oil from spilling. However, officials were reluctant to speak on this subject, citing the depth of the tanker as an obstacle to recovering the vessel. Officials stated they were still searching for a private company capable of this recovery, but chose instead to focus on an immediate clean-up effort, an effort may prove highly ineffective if the contents of the Solar 1 should explode or burst. In the event of a typhoon (which is common during this season) the potential damage the oil could do is both unpredictable and inestimable.

Governor Nava choked back sobs as he delivered his speech on Friday, simultaneously showing slides displaying the previous beauty of Guimaras and contrasting it with the current state of destruction. Guimaras is a tropical paradise, drawing tourists from around the world to its numerous white sand beaches, resorts, and dive spots. It is the home of several significant fisheries, including an extension of the Southeast Asian Fisheries Development center. It has been less than half a decade since Guimaras has pulled itself up from being one of the 20 poorest provinces in the Philippines, and it has done so by utilizing its bountiful natural resources. However, with 10,000 locals dependant on fishing for their livelihood (there has been no released estimate at the spill’s impact on tourism, though it’s likely there will be a significant one) it is hard to imagine how the economy can sustain this blow. As the oil continues to spread daily, accurate and full assessments of the damage are difficult to find. However, according to the Greenpeace website, the small fraction of released cargo has thus far covered 220 km of coastline, destroyed 450 hectares of mangroves, and 58 hectares of seaweed farm.

Cause for the accident is currently unknown, although it is known that the Solar 1, property of Sunshine Maritime, owned by Petron corporation, was operating with an expired Safety management certificate. The ship’s captain Norberto Aguro was under suspension, the reason being that he had not undergone Oil Tanker Training and Management.*

I, the publishing author, am an American Peace Corps Volunteer stationed on Guimaras. I have created this blog in the hopes of spreading awareness of this crisis. Regular updates will follow as events continue to unfold. The photos here were taken by me, where not otherwise indicated, and represent only a small portion of the disaster. By no means do they display the worst of it. All facts were gathered either first hand or from press releases at the Crisis meeting of Friday, August 18th (except where otherwise indicated).

According to the National Statistical Coordination Board of Western Visayas, as of 2004 Guimaras is home to over 155,000 people. It boasts 25 tropical resorts, 12 agri-tourism attractions, and is visited by over 116,000 tourists annually.

*as reported by, and The News Today