While the U.S. and the rest of the world marked the anniversary of the attack on New York City in 2001 for residents of Guimaras in Iloilo Sept. 11 was the first month anniversary of the oil spill which destroyed their fertile marine resources cost them their livelihoods and the tourist receipts of the island.

According to the latest report from the Philippines’ National Disaster Coordinating Committee 59 villages called barangays on the island itself and portions of Iloilo province have been affected by the oil spill rendering about 40 000 residents homeless and jobless. Many of the residents have had to evacuate their villages as the toxic fumes from the spilt oil gave rise to respiratory illnesses and skin irritations. A two-year-old boy was the first casualty as the fumes triggered an asthmatic attack.

Guimaras Island is one of the well-known international tourist destinations in the Philippines attracting primarily Europeans. One resort owner Martin Stummer whose Nagarao Island Resort in the southwestern part of Guimaras is already considering a 10-million-peso ($200 000) damage suit against oil giant Petron Corp. which owned the bunker oil and Sunshine Maritime Development Corp. the owner of the sunken tanker caused the oil spill. “I consider my investments a total loss ” Stummer told the Journal.

On Aug. 11 a tanker carrying 2 million liters of bunker fuel sank in the Guimaras Strait spewing its contents into the sea. To this day Petron 40% owned by the Philippine government and Saudi Aramco one of the world’s largest oil producers in the world have yet to provide a definite plan to salvage the tanker MT Solar I which continues to leak oil into the sea. Petron has been seeking a fuel supply contract with the Northern Mariana Islands. (See the story “Oil company visit fuels CUC proposal” in the April 17 edition of the Journal.)

Guimaras Gov. JC Rahman Nava said the “tanker and its cargo pose a constant threat to the health of the people and the environment.” Nava openly wept on national television as he spoke of the destruction to the lives of his constituents and the extensive marine resources of the island.

Melissa Savares mayor of Dededo told the Journal that she was willing to use her office as a “drop off point for donations” that her constituents may want to send to the Guimarasnons. Many Filipinos of Visayan or Ilonggo descent live in Dededo which is also the sister-city of Iloilo.

Rebecca Gandecila said she earned 30 pesos (60 U.S. cents) a day from gathering seashells in the nearby mudflats enough for her to buy a kilo of rice to feed her family and a bar of detergent soap. But the oil slick has contaminated the mudflats and the seashells have died. “What will we do now ” she asked.

According to the NDCC report standing crop damage has been estimated at about 1.07 million pesos ($21 400) and there are still non-estimated losses from fishermen and seaweed farmers in the affected areas. An earlier report by the government agency said Guimaras resorts have reported cancellations by its booked customers resulting in opportunity losses of close to 4 million pesos. Guimaras is close to several well-known diving spots among international scuba divers’ groups. Guimaras is also a major source of the Philippines’ sweet mangoes which are now finding their way to the dining tables of Guamanians.

In a press statement Jose Ingles World Wildlife Fund coordinator for the Sulu-Sulawesi Marine Ecoregion; said “(Guimaras) is tremendously rich. Threatened species such as the Dugong Green Sea Turtle Hawksbill Turtle and several cetacean species are found along the strait. A spill of this proportion is simply catastrophic.”

The NDCC said as of Sept. 8 some 45 million pesos have been provided by several government agencies and the Petron foundation via donations in cash and in kind from individuals and groups. The assistance comes in the form of medical aid food clothing and temporary shelter.

Petron which initially declared that it had no legal liability in the accident as it only hired the tanker said it would take care of the damages to the residents’ livelihood and environment. Swamped by critics Petron later relented in a press statement its chairman Nicasio I. Alcantara said the company was taking responsibility for the oil spill and would undertake the costs of cleanup and rehabilitation of the island. “In this clean-up and rehabilitation efforts we would want to make it clear that we have made funds readily available for legitimate expenses and requests. We will continue to commit all necessary Petron resources in support of this effort. We are committed to the solution of this problem.”

An ongoing public hearing by the Philippine Congress and an inquiry by a Special Board of Marine Inquiry and the Department of Justice discovered that the captain of the tanker Solar I did not have the necessary papers to pilot an oil tanker. But Capt. Norbert Aguro and Clemente Cancio the president of Sunshine Maritime insisted that Petron knew about this. The Philippines has yet to fully implement international maritime laws which require the use of double-hulled tankers to transport dangerous commodities such as chemicals and oil. Activist fishing groups scored the government however saying that it intended to “whitewash” the investigation as a Department of Justice panel did not recommend criminal charges against Petron.

President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo who visited Guimaras 13 days after the accident vowed there would be “no whitewash” in the investigation and said those found responsible for the oil spill would be prosecuted. Last Sept. 6 on her third visit to the island she declared the oil spill contained even as Philippine Coast Guard officers along with local government officials and satellite images have spotted the oil slick moving towards Negros Occidental which lies southeast of Guimaras and other areas of Iloilo.

Victor Puey vice chairman of Negros Search and Rescue said resorts along the northwestern coast of Negros Occidental have already prepared for the eventuality that the oil spill would hit them. “We’re using booms made of rice stalks to meet the oil ” he told the Journal.

Arroyo declared the oil spill as a “national calamity” and has released funds through various government agencies to help feed clothe and give alternative livelihoods to the displaced residents.

Representatives of the International Oil Pollution Compensation Fund Petron’s insurer meanwhile arrived in Guimaras on Sept. 7 to conduct workshops and help the fisherfolk many of whom have barely finished grade school file their insurance claims. About $322 million is available for the victims of the oil spill.

Though on a smaller scale the oil spill in Guimaras has been compared to the Exxon Valdez accident in Alaska which damaged wildlife and the rich fishing grounds of the Prince William Sound and the Alaska Gulf in 1989. To this day state and federal authorities are demanding more money from Exxon Mobil Corp. to clean up the bodies of water affected by the oil spill. MBJ