[PHOTO AT LEFT - SLUDGE-FREE: President Arroyo takes a stroll on the beach at Costa Aguada resort in Inampulagan in Guimaras during her second visit to the island since the massive oil spill this month.]

INAMPULUGAN, GUIMARAS, AUGUST 29, 2006 (STAR) By Aurea Calica - Only seven of the 24 resorts here were affected by the oil spill, President Arroyo said yesterday as she called on tourists not to shy away from visiting the other 17 resorts.

However, organizers of the trip received a scolding from the President as it turned out the area she and her media entourage were taken to was affected by the oil spill.

"Why did you bring them (members of the media) here?" Mrs. Arroyo asked the officials who organized the event.

And to save Guimaras’ image as a tourist attraction, the President proposed that the tragedy from now on be called "Solar I oil spill" instead of Guimaras oil spill.

Mrs. Arroyo had gamely posed before photographers and cameramen at the Costa Aguada island resort here with the beach as a backdrop. The rocks lining the beach, however, showed an oily sheen that indicated the area was affected by the oil spill.

The President wanted the event organizers to bring the members of media to another resort that was unaffected by the oil spill, but this was not possible due to lack of accommodation.

She said she still preferred the media see and report on a resort that was not affected by the oil spill. She said they could have brunched in another resort after she left.

Mrs. Arroyo spent the night at the resort and brought members of media with her to showcase the area. Expenses were shouldered by Petron Corp., which had chartered the ill-fated oil tanker MT Solar I, which sank in the rough waters off Guimaras last Aug. 11 and continues to leak bunker fuel into the sea.

Guests were served seafood, which authorities said were safe to eat, along with fish caught in the northwestern part of the Guimaras Strait.

They were also encouraged to take a dip in the water, which officials said was fine for swimming since only those who swam in areas affected by the oil spill complained of skin irritation and other problems.

While rubbing elbows with members of media, Mrs. Arroyo read her statement thanking the United Nations and the international community for their prompt and substantial assistance to the Philippines.

She said she was grateful not only for the help in cleaning up the oil spill, but also for livelihood projects for affected residents as the government tried to fully rehabilitate Guimaras’ damaged ecosystem.

"The government is on top of the situation and we assure the affected residents that we, along with our international partners, will be by the people’s side in meeting this challenge," the President said.

Helping hands

Australia and France have pledged to help the Philippines clean up the massive oil spill, Mrs. Arroyo said.

She also thanked the United States and Japan for sending experts to help deal with the spill, which has contaminated resorts, marine reserves, seaweed farms and fishing communities on the southern coast of Guimaras island and outlying areas.

Officials will appeal for more foreign assistance, Mrs. Arroyo said, adding that Australia and France have offered help. She did not elaborate on the specific aid that both countries might provide.

She said Defense Undersecretary Ernesto Carolina has been tasked to draft a formal "worldwide appeal" to seek assistance to address the environmental damage brought about by the oil spill.

Solar I, carrying about two million liters of bunker oil, sank off Guimaras and began spilling oil that has affected a 220-kilometer stretch of coastline.

An investigation will pinpoint criminal liability and come up with ways to prevent a recurrence, the President said.

Traces of oil have been carried by the currents to the shores of two towns in Iloilo province, about 50 kilometers west of Guimaras, Coast Guard officials said.

The Guimaras provincial government has reported that more than 26,000 people — directly and indirectly dependent on fishing — have been affected.

Environment Secretary Angelo Reyes said the tanker has been located about 700 meters under the sea. Officials will wait for a Japanese salvage ship to arrive later this week and examine the tanker with a remote-controlled probe before deciding what to do next, he said.

If the tanker still has oil in it, the government may siphon off the remaining bunker fuel because it could break apart if lifted, Reyes said, adding that entombing the vessel under the seabed would be too costly.

"We have to do this quick because some people say it’s a disaster again waiting to happen," he said.

Meanwhile, French non-government organization Groupe de Secours Catastrophe Francais (GSCF) has offered its services to help in the cleanup of Guimaras, the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) said.

In a report to the DFA, Ambassador to France Jose Zaide said the GSCF, composed of firefighters who provide assistance in emergency situations and natural disasters, extended the offer upon learning of Mrs. Arroyo’s move to declare the area in the vicinity of the oil spill under a state of calamity.

"The GSCF is offering to send teams to clean up the waters off Guimaras using sophisticated depolluting equipment," Zaide said.

The GSCF had previously worked with the National Disaster Coordinating Council (NDCC) in assisting rescue and relief operations during the December 2004 typhoons in Manila.

The DFA will forward the GSCF request to the NDCC.

A four-man team from the US Coast Guard and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is in the country to help assess the damage brought by the oil spill off Guimaras island.

Japan’s Disaster Relief Team is also in the country to assess the damage by the oil spill and determine the assistance that could be given to help contain the ecological disaster.

Compensation fund

The President said yesterday the Philippines can avail itself as much as $310 million from an international compensation fund to finance the cleanup of the country’s worst-ever oil spill and the rehabilitation of affected communities.

In an interview aired over dzXL, the President also aired a worldwide appeal for assistance to address the ecological disaster and said she ordered the expansion of the membership of the Task Force Guimaras to include an environment expert.

"The Philippines, being a signatory to the 1992 Civil Liability and Fund Conventions, has the right to compensation for the damage and pollution caused by oil spills like what happened in Guimaras," Mrs. Arroyo said. "The biggest possible amount that may be released by the 1992 convention for a calamity is $310 million."

The amount could be supplemented by the International Oil Pollution Compensation Fund (IOPC), which Petron Corp. can also tap as a member in case the compensation from the convention would not be enough.

Petron, which owns the bunker oil that is seeping from the tanker, earlier announced that it is ready to tap funds from insurance and the IOPC if there is a need to augment financing for the cleanup.

The IOPC fund, which collects contributions from member-countries, can provide compensation for oil pollution damage resulting from oil spills from tankers.

Mrs. Arroyo said the Philippines will ramp up compliance with international standards requiring all tankers carrying hazardous materials to be double-hulled and double-bottomed by 2008 or seven years ahead of schedule.

"We will be early. We will not wait for 2015. From now until 2008, we will require shipping companies to convert their tankers into double-hulls and double-bottoms," she said.

The President said the Maritime Industry Authority (MARINA) is now testing the seaworthiness of the country’s 214 tankers as well as checking the qualifications of their crew members.

She said maritime authorities will also create dedicated sea lanes for ships carrying hazardous materials, far away from tourist spots and livelihood areas.

Mrs. Arroyo ordered the Department of Transportation and Communications to conduct a full-blown investigation after the Coast Guard’s special board of marine inquiry came out with its initial findings.

Mrs. Arroyo also asked the Dr. Glen Aguilar, chancellor of the University of Philippines-Visayas, to join the task force as an expert.

She said she is also inviting the World Wildlife Fund to join the effort. — With Paolo Romero, Pia Lee-Brago, Katherine Adraneda, Ronilo Pamonag, AP

Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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