By Enrico Dela Cruz and Adrian Portugal
MANILA/POLA, Oriental Mindoro, March 6 (Reuters) – Philippine authorities believe they have located the site of a tanker that sunk off a central province last week as they sped to assess the extent of an oil spill that was causing damage has led to a ban on fishing and curb further environmental damage.
The tanker that MT Princess Empressis said to be about 366 meters below sea level off Oriental Mindoro province, although the information has yet to be verified, the Environment Ministry said in a statement Monday.
A remote-controlled autonomous vehicle would be deployed to determine the exact location of the tanker, it said.
Authorities want to know how much oil is in it and how to pump out the rest and stop leaks, experts said.
According to the Coast Guard, the ship had about 800,000 liters (211,338 gallons) of industrial heating oil on board when it suffered an engine failure in rough seas on February 28.
It was not immediately clear what caused the sinking of the Philippine-flagged ship, but all 20 crew members were rescued before it went under.
Oil spills were discovered on the coast and in coastal waters near where the ship is believed to have sunk, forcing the government to declare a state of emergency in nine towns in Oriental Mindoro. That means emergency funds can be channeled directly to affected communities, including those affected by the fishing ban imposed by authorities during the cleanup
“When I catch fish, my daily income goes to my children and the food we eat. It’s a very big problem that this oil spill happened,” said 55-year-old fisherman Florante Favroa.
“It’s a very big loss for us, we’re out of resources,” he said.
Swimming has also been banned in the affected areas, with the Ministry of Tourism raising concerns that the oil spill is affecting three of the country’s world-class diving destinations such as the Verde Island Passage and Apo Reef in Mindoro, as well as the World War II wrecks in Palawan could.
About 36,000 hectares (88,958 acres) of coral reefs, mangroves and seagrass were potentially at risk of being affected by the oil spill, according to marine scientists from the University of the Philippines.
“Let me assure you that the damage done directly to the environment and the livelihoods of our people will be compensated in accordance with the provisions of the compensation guidelines,” Dolor said at a news conference.
The tanker’s owner, RDC Reield Marine Services Inc., has hired local agencies, Harbor Star Shipping Services and Malayan Towage and Salvage Corp., to clean up.
“The situation is very difficult … because of the weather. When sea conditions are poor, it is also unsafe for our contractors to work,” said Rodrigo Bella, Harbor Star’s vice president, at the press conference.
The two contractors would initially bear all costs, including paying residents hired to clean up, Dolor said.
(Reporting by Enrico Dela Cruz and Adrian Portugal; Additional reporting by Karen Lema; Editing by Ed Davies)
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