AUGUST 28, 2006 (STAR) By Paolo Romero - President Arroyo is expected to announce today a massive rehabilitation plan for areas affected by the spreading oil spill in Guimaras and crack the whip on government agencies and private firms involved in the ecological disaster.

Press Secretary Ignacio Bunye said Mrs. Arroyo is expected to make the announcement during the trip back to Guimaras this morning with a contingent of Cabinet officials and Palace journalists.

Bunye said the President and the media will inspect the progress of the cleanup at a meeting with local officials and residents affected by the country’s worst oil spill.

Another Palace official, however, said the President would emphasize areas unaffected by the disaster in an effort to lure back tourists to the region.

"We can expect a major announcement from the President to set the direction to address this major environmental calamity," the official said.

The President surveyed the extent of the oil slick on a helicopter before meeting with local officials last Saturday. She called on Petron Corp., which chartered the sunken oil tanker, and Task Force Guimaras to immediately implement damage control measures and prevent the oil slick from spreading.

The official, however, refused to give details of the announcement, including the possibility of putting up additional funds to finance the massive cleanup.

During her first visit to Guimaras, Mrs. Arroyo revealed a comprehensive blueprint of the "Green Philippines" initiative.

She emphasized the "Green Philippines" initiative is an ambitious but achievable plan for environmental protection "consistent with our values as a nation."

The Palace official said Mrs. Arroyo wants a speedy investigation into the accident to pinpoint those responsible in the accident.

The official said it would be easy for the government to deal with Petron since it owns 40 percent of the firm.

Coast Guard officials, on the other hand, warned of another wave of contamination from the oil spill, pointing out the recovered sludge which were placed in sacks had been exposed to heavy rains.

They said there is urgent need to find a suitable dump site for the sludge.

Desperate efforts

In a last ditch effort to contain the oil spill from spreading, the Coast Guard and private contractors sprayed large amounts of chemical dispersants over the affected areas.

However, a Coast Guard official conceded they did not know if they could contain the spill from the sunken Solar I tanker because they have not yet determined if the tanker is still leaking oil more than two weeks after it went down in rough weather off Guimaras.

"Because we’re not able to control the spill we have to continuously spray during daytime. That is the only thing that has helped a lot in keeping the oil from reaching the shoreline," said local Coast Guard commander Harold Jarder.

"The threat is still there. We are not even sure how much of the oil has been spilled," he added.

Harder said it was a "necessity," that an underwater survey be conducted of the Solar I, which has been spotted lying some 640 meters (2,112 feet) underwater around 13.3 nautical miles south of Guimaras, beyond the reach of human divers.

The vessel went down in rough waters on Aug. 11. Two crew men are still missing.

Some 50,000 gallons of oil has leaked from the tanker and environmentalists fear that the remaining 450,000 gallons of oil still in the Solar I’s hold might also leak out.

Oil refiner Petron Corp, the company that contracted the Solar I, has hired a Japanese salvage ship equipped with a remote-control mini-submarine to help in the process, but its arrival has been delayed until Tuesday.

Two Coast Guard vessels, a tugboat and a BN Islander aircraft, contracted by the tanker’s owner, were all seen spraying dispersant in the waters off Guimaras where the main oil slick could be seen, stretching out in the sea.

Smaller slicks had also broken off and were floating out to other islands in the central Philippines.

Jarder said that previously, they had not used chemical dispersant extensively because of limited supply. Petron has ordered more dispersant but Jarder said their supplies would only last for about a week.

The Coast Guard and Petron had used spill booms that float on the surface of the water to contain the oil but Jarder said the seas were now too rough for the booms to be fully effective.

"It’s not practical considering the sea conditions there. (The oil) will just go under the spill boom or over the spill boom," he remarked.

He said the dispersant was biodegradable, adding that the coast guard was careful not to spray on the shoreline where the chemicals might affect people.

"The area is too large to contain with oil spill booms. Spraying will just mitigate the spilled oil before it hits the beaches," said Virgilio Garcia, manager of First Response, a company contracted by the tanker’s owner to help in the cleanup.

He warned that the dispersant was "very expensive. We’re running out of funds to purchase the chemicals."

The oil spill has already polluted some 300 kilometers (180 miles) of coastline, including stretches of pristine beaches.

The Coast Guard said the oil spill has already caused damage to at least 25 barangays in six coastal towns in Western Visayas and affected 3,000 families.

The oil slick has also damaged portions of Taklong Island National Marine Reserve with its 1,500 hectares of mangroves, sea grass and coral reefs, stretching up to 200 kilometers of the coastal area in Guimaras.

It has wrecked the island’s tourism industry and threatened the livelihood of hundreds of fishermen who struggle to clean up the oil with hand tools and improvised oil booms made of bamboo and wild grass.

Hairdressers to the rescue

Authorities, meanwhile, reiterated their appeal to the public to donate hair and chicken feathers as an oil spill absorbent.

The idea of using indigenous materials like cut hair and chicken feathers was suggested by international environmentalist group Greenpeace to soak up the floating bunker spilling into the sea.

Heeding the call, numerous beauty salons and barber shops in Metro Manila reportedly started collecting up the cut hair of their customers in the effort to help out in the Guimaras ecological disaster.

The city government of Manila, for its part, expressed support in the campaign to collect cut hair from barber shops and beauty salons and chicken feathers from the markets.

The Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) said the materials will be used to contain the massive oil slick that has already threatened the fish stocks of nearby Negros and Panay islands.

Coast Guard spokesman Lt. Cmdr. Joseph Coyme said donations could be brought to the PCG headquarters at South Harbor in Manila, which will immediately ferry the unique cargo to Guimaras.

Anticipating problems arising from the disposal of chicken feathers and human hair after its use in the oil spill, the Department of Science and Technology (DOST) suggested to burn them up and leave them in the area.

Rey Esguerra, supervising research specialist of the Industrial Technology Development Institute (ITDI) of DOST, said the burnt hair and feathers can be used as "alternative fuel and raw material" (AFR) for the country’s cement industry.

"AFR is a process that uses waste oil and raw materials as alternative fuels," Esguerra explained.

He said a Switzerland-based cement company, Holcim Philippines, has proposed to help in the cleanup by using the wastes from Guimaras as fuel.

Once the company has started to collect the hair and feathers used in the Guimaras oil spill, the DOST will be supervising the test burning of the materials to assess if these will affect the quality of cement products.

"(DOST) will also evaluate the effects of burning these waste materials in the environment," Esguerra added.

Esguerra said aside from oil spill dispersant, he also proposed "bioremediation" process in containing the oil spill.

He explained bioremediation as a process that uses microorganisms to restore the environment altered by contaminants to its original condition.

He said the microorganisms will help clean the remaining water pollutants which were not removed by oil dispersant.

Esguerra predicted it will take 10 to 15 years to completely rehabilitate Guimaras from the oil spill.

The United Nations Development Program (UNDP), United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), and the International Maritime Organization (IMO) are extending $16 million in financial, technical, and relief assistance to the Guimaras oil spill.

The UNDP will be providing financial and technical assistance through the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) to help consolidate the ongoing damage assessments.

The UNDP will likewise provide for immediate relief assistance such as alternative livelihood support for the locals affected by the oil spill.

The UNICEF, for its part, will provide emergency health kits, medicines, water purifying tablets, and some tarpaulin while the IMO will provide critical information and technical assistance in relation to the oil spill containment and cleanup.

Who’s to blame

Amid the feverish efforts to contain the oil spill, authorities are also focusing their guns on Petron and the owners of the sunken tanker for their liability over the ecological disaster.

President Arroyo has ordered the Department of Justice (DOJ) to head an investigation to determine the liability of Petron and the ship owners.

The Board of Marine Inquiry (BMI), on the other hand, is expected to release in the next few days its initial findings on the oil spill, the country’s worst environmental disaster.

Congress also took the initiative to conduct an inquiry over the incident.

Sen. Pia Cayetano, chairwoman of the Senate committee on environment and natural resources with co-chairman Manila Rep. Miles Roces of the oversight body of the House of Representatives, took the initiative to summon Petron officials, the ship owners Sunshine Maritime Development Corp., and concerned government officials to appear before the Joint Oversight Committee and explain the incident.

Cayetano pointed out the Guimaras oil spill incident could have stemmed from violations of the Clean Water Act.

Among those invited to today’s hearing are Petron chairman Nicasio Alcantara and Sunshine Maritime Development president Clemente Cancio.

Local officials led by Guimaras Gov. JC Rahman Nava and Coast Guard commandant Vice Admiral Arthur Gosingan have been invited to brief the lawmakers for an update on the relief and cleanup efforts.

Government officials expected to attend the hearing include Defense Secretary Avelino Cruz Jr., as chairman of the National Disaster Coordinating Council (NDCC) and Environment Secretary Angelo Reyes.

Lawmakers led by Senate President Manuel Villar Jr. and Bukidnon Rep. Nereus Acosta, chairman of the House environment committee, went to Guimaras to witness the extent of the damage caused by the oil spill.

Cayetano, for her part, said they took samples of the oil sludge that had accumulated on the beach and oil-soaked plants along the shoreline, which they will bring to the Senate hearing today.

Cayetano said that among the main provisions of a report being prepared by the committee on the proposed "Ship Pollution Prevention Act of 2006" is the creation of an Oil Spill Liability Fund, which will be used to clean up and pay claims for natural resources damage caused by oil spills from water vessels.

Cayetano likened the fund to a "toll fee" charged on the drivers of motor vehicles.

In this case, vessels that carry toxic substances like oil would be asked to contribute to a fund that would be utilized to respond to emergency cases like an oil spill, she said.

Cayetano said the fund will be readily utilized since it usually takes some time to secure funds from the insurance coverage of sea vessels.

Sen. Franklin Drilon said the national crisis triggered by the oil spill in Guimaras only underscored the country’s inability to minimize maritime environmental disasters.

Drilon attributed the problem to the government’s continued failure to update the capabilities of the Coast Guard and other environment protection agencies.

Drilon noted that every time a major maritime accident occurs, the government’s "knee-jerk reaction" has always been to turn to foreign countries for advice, expertise, analysis, equipment and technology. - With Edu Punay, Katherine Adraneda, Helen Flores, Christina Mendez, AFP

Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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