Oil Spill Threatens World-Famous Dive Spot, Militant fishers want criminal raps filed against shipowner

One month after it capsized in Apo Menor Reef off Sablayan, Occidental Mindoro, the diving ship M/V Island Explorer has not been pulled off the mishap site and threatens to explode. Village fisherfolk are readying criminal charges against the shipowner while holding environment officials also accountable for the ecological destruction.

By Gerry Albert Corpuz

Leaders of the militant fisherfolk group Pamalakaya want criminal charges filed against Juan Wee, owner of M/V Island Explorer, which capsized in Apo Menor Reef and caused oil spill that destroyed a large parts of the protected coral reef in Sablayan, Occidental Mindoro on Dec. 21 last year.

“The criminal charges against Wee should be filed soon,” Fernando Hicap, Pamalakaya national chair, said.

Hicap’s group found the diving boat is still in the mishap site one month after it tilted upside down and no retrieval operation was launched to pull it off Apo Reef.

Sources said Wee even wanted to blow up the ship altogether to eliminate evidence of the sinking and oil spill.

“We cannot allow Wee and his cohorts in the national government to launch their daring escape from justice. This is a matter of life and death to small fisherfolk in the area,” Hicap said.

The militant leader said Malacañang (the presidential office) and the Department of Environment and
Natural Resources (DENR) should not be spared from public condemnation arising from ecological mishap caused by M/V Island Explorer.

“Small fisherfolk if not banned are prevented from fishing within the Apo Reef protected area,” Hicap said. “Yet, government authorities allow eco-tourism activities in the area to please pleasure-seeking chiefs of transnational companies. President Macapagal-Arroyo and the rest of her officials should share with Wee, the public’s wholesale condemnation.”

2: 30 pm to 2:30 am

Citing reports, the Public Interest Law Center (PILC) revealed that M/V Island Explorer left Batangas City Port on Dec. 20 at around 2:30 p.m. en route to Apo Reef despite the bad weather. With 24 passengers and crewmen on board, the vessel entered the Apo Menor Reef the following day at around 2:30 a.m. and shipwrecked at the reef.

M/V Island Explorer, a Japanese-made fishing vessel, was converted to a diving boat. It measures 150 ft, weighs 450 tons and can carry up to 200,000 liters of bunker fuel. At the time it capsized at Apo Reef, the boat was believed to be carrying about 80,000 liters of bunker fuel. Fishermen said an undetermined amount of fuel has already leaked toward Apo Manor and Apo Mayor causing irreparable damage to the reef.

Pamalakaya para-legal officer Cesar Arellano confirmed observations raised by environmental groups and Sablyan fisherfolks that the Apo Reef case could rival the coliform crisis in Boracay Island in 1997.

“The clear and present danger of irreparable ecological disaster now threatens the livelihood and health of the local community. There’s no doubt about it,” Arellano said.

Arellano said Pamalakaya will closely coordinate with PILC and the fisherfolk community in Sablayan regarding the possible filing of criminal and civil charges against the owner of M/V Island Explorer.

“Mr. Wee must be compelled to undertake an immediate clean up of the reef, prevent oil spill from further destroying the reef and conduct the general rehabilitation of the protected area. But cases against him will stay and should be filed before any appropriate court,” Arellano stressed.

Arellano said aside from criminal liabilities, the fisherfolk and the local government officials of Sablayan must demand an immediate indemnification from Wee who, aside from the Explorer, also owns Island and Cruise Adventure.

Burst and explode

PILC lawyer Marie Yuvienco, one of the legal counsels for the affected fisherfolk community in Sablayan, town told Bulatlat.com the ship could burst and explode anytime because half of the ship is very much exposed to sunlight and extreme heat.

She said only 10.4 feet portion of the boat is submerged to shallow waters. Yuvienco said the ship will not float because its weight is denser and heavier compared to the dense capacity of Apo Reef.

“The direction of the wind could push the oil spill to Palawan and this would also threaten the coral reef area in nearby islands,” she said.

The environmental network Kalikasan-People’s Network for the Environment echoed Yuvienco’s concern about the possible explosion in Apo Reef. The group’s coordinator Clemente Bautista said authorities and Scuba World, the operator of M/V Island Explorer should immediately contain the oil spill to avoid further damage to the environment and to fisherfolk’s livelihood.

“It has no excuse to evade its responsibility. The same applies to DENR which has done nothing to settle this ecological disaster for over a month now,” Bautista said.

Apo Reef was proclaimed a Protected Area as a Natural Park and its surrounding waters as buffer zone under Presidential Proclamation 868 in 1996. The Apo Reef covers about 15,792 hectares in South China Sea and about 15 nautical miles west of Sablayan, Mindoro Occidental and 21 nautical miles northeast
of the Calamian Group of Islands in Northern Palawan.

Lawbreaker too

PILC’s Yuvienco said Wee violated Presidential Decree 600 as amended by PD 979, which prohibits the discharge of fuel in marine territory. She also said Wee’s Scuba World also violated the NIPAS Act of 1996 which bans enterprises from discharging pollutants to declared protected areas.

She said the country’s maritime law was even violated because M/V Island Explorer was carrying 24 passengers at the time it capsized in Apo Reef when the capacity of the diving boat was only 16.

Gozun sets probe

Meanwhile, DENR Secretary Elisea Gozun responding to groups’ call for immediate clean up of the oil spill last week ordered an investigation. She also said the department’s legal office is now looking into the accountability of Wee and Scuba World.

Field reports from Region IV-B of the DENR said M/V Island Explorer had already been emptied of fuel after the mishap and that the oil spill could have come from the flooded engine room and not from the bunker fuel tank.

Gozun said she had already ordered DENR regional officials to coordinate with the Philippine Coast Guard in order to contain the spread of oil spill in Apo Reef and nearby waters. (https://www.bulatlat.com)

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