August 25, 2006

Japanese ship for Philippine spill cleanup delayed

By Leo Solinap

JORDAN, Philippines (Reuters) - A Japanese salvage ship hired to help clean up the Philippines' worst oil spill has developed mechanical problems, delaying its scheduled Saturday arrival by at least three days, officials said on Friday.

The ship was now expected to arrive on Tuesday after repairs to its crane, Coast Guard spokesman Lieutenant Joseph Coyme said.

More than 40,000 people and 200 km (120 miles) of coastline have been affected by the spill of industrial fuel after a tanker chartered by oil refiner Petron Corp. sank in heavy seas off the central island of Guimaras on August 11.

At least a 10th of its cargo of 2 million liters of bunker oil initially gushed out, polluting beaches and a marine park with black sludge, but there have also been signs of fresh leaks from the sunken tanker.

The 998-tonne Solar 1 is believed to be lying 640 meters (2,100 feet) under water off Guimaras island, beyond the reach of Philippine divers. The developing Southeast Asian country also lacks the heavy equipment to reach the tanker.

"We need to determine the exact location and condition of Solar 1 so we can decide whether to siphon the oil, lift the ship entirely with the remaining fuel or entomb the tanker using cement or sediment," said Carlos Tan, Petron's health, safety and environment manager.

The Japanese salvage ship has equipment that provides images of the ocean floor from a remotely operated vehicle. The cost of its mission will be paid by the insurance firm of the tanker's owner, Sunshine Maritime Development Corp.

An inquiry into the ship's sinking has called on Sunshine to explain why Solar 1's captain was allowed to sail without any advanced training on oil tanker operations. The captain's license was revoked earlier this week.

Petron, in which the Philippine government and Saudi state oil firm Saudi Aramco each have a 40 percent stake, has been criticized for the pace of its response to the disaster.

But Petron, the country's largest oil refiner, has insisted it is doing everything possible to contain the spill and help the residents of coastal areas cope by hiring them to clean beaches and mangrove trees.

Shares in the company finished down 3.85 percent at 3.75 pesos on Friday. The stock has shed 11 percent over the past two weeks.


President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo ordered drop-off centers for human hair and chicken feathers to be set up in response to a call by the Coast Guard on Thursday for absorbent material to help soak up the spill.

"This is a national calamity that demands the cooperation and solidarity of all Filipinos," said Arroyo, who is scheduled to visit Guimaras on Saturday. "Let us do what has to be done first and deal with the blame later."

The municipal governments of Concepcion, Ajuy and Barotac Nuevo in Iloilo province put the towns under a state of calamity on Friday to speed up the release of funds for the cleanup.

Guimaras island had already been declared a calamity area due to the effects of the slick on 20 fishing villages, its tourism industry and the mangrove trees and coral reefs of a marine reserve.

Environmental groups said the spill also threatened the endangered giant clams at the Sagay Marine Reserve off the nearby island of Negros.

"These are the last of the endangered giant clams of the Visayan Sea," marine biologist Angel Alcala told the Philippine Daily Inquirer newspaper.

(Additional reporting by Manny Mogato)