Authorities in the Philippines are racing to find and secure a sunken tanker ship loaded with 800,000 litres (210,000 gallons) of industrial fuel oil that has started to leak into waters rich in coral and marine life.
The Princess Empress was travelling from Bataan province, near the capital, Manila, to the central province of Iloilo on Tuesday when it developed engine trouble and sank in rough seas.
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The Philippine Coast Guard initially reported that a spillage spotted in the sea was diesel fuel from the stricken vessel’s engines and not the ship’s cargo of industrial oil.
But the coastguard said on Thursday that tests of water samples showed that some of the industrial oil had leaked into the sea off Oriental Mindoro province.
The spill had spread over 24sq km (9 square miles) by Wednesday, the coastguard said previously. It is not known how much diesel fuel and how much of the industrial fuel oil cargo is in the water.
“A ship’s structural integrity may be compromised during sinking, and it may develop a hole through which oil will leak under pressure,” said Philippine Coast Guard spokesperson Rear Admiral Armand Balilo, according to local news site GMA News Online.
The cargo of fuel oil was loaded directly into the tanker and was not in sealed containers, Balilo said, noting that the Princess Empress sank in waters more than 400 metres deep (1,300 feet), which was too deep for divers to reach.
The Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) confirms that the oil spill from sunken motor tanker in Oriental Mindoro includes “industrial fuel oil”. Motor tanker Princess Empress was carrying 800,000 liters of industrial fuel oil. 📸: PCG @gmanews pic.twitter.com/Adz8OJPmRD
— Joviland Rita (@jovilandxrita) March 2, 2023
Oriental Mindoro provincial Governor Humerlito Dolor said a search was under way to find the tanker and plug the leak.
“The coastguard made assurances to us that they are ready to syphon off the oil once they identify [the location],” Dolor told local media. “Unfortunately, after two aerial surveillance [flights], we still can’t find the exact location of the ship.”
The coastguard has deployed oil spill booms to try to contain the leaking fuel and has sprayed chemicals to break down the oil in the water. Fishermen and tourism operators along the coast depend heavily on the waters for their livelihoods and there are concerns these could be at risk.
The Philippine Department of Environment and Natural Resources said 21 marine protected areas were endangered by the oil spill, including the Verde Island Passage (VIP), which is considered to be one of the most diverse and productive marine ecosystems in the world, the Philippine Star digital edition reported.
The waters of the VIP strait provide food and sustain the livelihoods of more than two million people, according to environmental groups.
Why you should be worried about the Oriental Mindoro oil spill (a thread) ⛽:
— Greenpeace Philippines (@gpph) March 2, 2023
Oil has been spotted along a roughly 60km (37-mile) stretch of water between Naujan and Bongabong municipality, said Ram Temena, Oriental Mindoro disaster operations chief.
“We have many fish sanctuaries along the coast,” Temena said.
“It could have a huge impact due to the possibility that the oil could attach to the coral reefs, affecting the marine biodiversity.”