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Rey Gamboa: Blame Marina for MT Princess Express sinking

Blame Marina for MT Princess Express sinking
Rey Gamboa - March 14, 2023 |

While the focus on the sinking of the MT Princess Express tanker last Feb. 28 remains largely about the cleanup operations of spilled diesel and industrial fuel oil polluting a growing number of island coastlines, very little has been reported on why it happened.

Up to now, more than two weeks after MT Princess Express sank, very little information on RDC Reield Marine Services Inc., the vessel’s owner, has been made available to the public.

In fact, in a press interview given by the Maritime Industry Authority (MARINA) last week, the regulatory agency spoke on behalf of the tanker owners, saying that the vessel was covered by a $1 billion protection and indemnity insurance for every incident, including an oil spill, that the shipping company had a valid Certificate of Public Convenience (CPC) for MT Princess Express, and that RDC Reield should file an insurance claim for the oil spill.

As a government office responsible for regulating the maritime industry, MARINA should lead an investigation into the reasons why an oil-bearing tanker failed at sea, and in the process posed threats to the environment, as well as to the livelihood and health of thousands of Filipinos.

Unfortunately, it seems that MARINA is by itself compromised in this instance, especially after stories surfaced that the vessel’s license had been revoked by the former MARINA head in 2021 for failing to prove its seaworthiness in carrying fuel oil products.

Under the new MARINA administration, however, MT Princess Express was given the go-signal to ferry oil products via a technical loophole, which could have gone unnoticed or could have deliberately been overlooked.
Adherence to strict standards

When you have an administrator who lacks the depth of knowledge in shipping operations, decisions about ship worthiness can become fatal especially when a more cunning shipping company can undermine the approval process in a bid to get a permit to operate.

Industry sources have been pointing out that MARINA needs an administrator who has a proven track record in shipping. Not having one could undermine the regulatory responsibilities of the agency, foremost of which would be to make sure that all shipping vessels that leave port are designed, equipped, and managed by competent shipping companies.

Only by ensuring that shipping companies adhere to strict standards will there be little or no chances of accidents at sea. Almost all of sea accidents point to deviations in set standards as causes, which only emphasizes the fact that accidents can indeed be prevented.

It’s unfortunate and ironical that, during the day when the MT Princess Express sank, the first-ever Philippine Maritime Industry Summit was held with no less than President Marcos delivering the keynote address and asking for the Philippine maritime industry “to be looked upon with admiration by the region and the rest of the world.”

During the event, the updated Maritime Industry Development Plan 2028 was presented espousing the vision of “achieving a strong and reliable Philippine merchant fleet that addresses the sea transport requirements of the archipelago in support of the national development agenda.”

One of the overriding programs mentioned was the enhancement of maritime transport safety and security, a keen recognition of the risks that an archipelago like the Philippines, with over 36,000 kilometers of shoreline, faces should any accident happen.

How MT Princess Express, which was registered as newly built, had encountered engine problems while at sea begs some credible explanation. Not only does its rescued crew of 20 need to be held accountable, but also its tanker owners and MARINA.

An attempt to whitewash the whole incident will only lead to more if not bigger accidents in the future, especially, if the rumored lobby of small, but influential ship owners, to relax existing MARINA policies will be successful.

Lessons learned from the sunk MT Princess Express must be clearly amplified to ensure that corrective measures are instituted, and any lapses on the part of the government’s regulatory agency must be remedied by the right policies.

Oil spills, like chemical spills at sea, pose a great danger to the ecosystem, as well as to humans. This is why preventing them from happening is the first line of defense. But when the inevitable happens, countries like the Philippines must have the capability to respond quickly and adequately.

For a long while, the Philippines has not had any major oil spill incident. The last one was in 2006, when an estimated 1.5 million liters of bunker fuel spilt from M/T Solar 1 when it sank off the coast of Guimaras Island and contaminated the sea and the island’s shoreline.

Aside from the damage on the local ecosystem comprising mangroves, seagrass and coral reefs, a full stop to fishing activities had to be implemented. Even the local tourism industry was hobbled while the shores were being rehabilitated.

It took Guimaras more than decade to restore the environment to its pristine state. During that time, while clean up of the oil spill continued, mangroves were replanted, coinciding with the slow return of seagrasses and resuscitation of coral reefs.

Where MT Princess Express sank is an area where the sea current is strong, which has complicated spilled oil containment efforts. Even if the tanker was carrying only 800,000 liters, the leaked fuel drifted much farther beyond Oriental Mindoro.

This could turn out to be a bigger tragedy than M/T Solar 1, which only means that we need to have a more resolute MARINA that truly understands all the safety rules that ships carrying oil should comply with.