August 23, 2006

Japanese ship to join Philippine oil spill cleanup

By Leo Solinap

ILOILO CITY, Philippines (Reuters) - A Japanese salvage
ship was due in the Philippines on Saturday to begin siphoning
industrial fuel from a sunken tanker off the central island of
Guimaras, oil refiner Petron Corp. said on Wednesday.

The tanker, chartered by Petron, sank in heavy seas on
August 11, spilling about a tenth of its cargo and creating a
toxic slick that has affected 40,000 people and 200 km (120
miles) of coastline.

On Wednesday, experts from the Japanese and U.S. coast
guards joined Philippine disaster officials to assess the
damage to dozens of communities in the provinces of Guimaras,
Iloilo and Negros Occidental.

"While aerial surveys indicate that the leak has stopped,
we have been gravely concerned about the possibility that the
oil in the vessel will continue to be released," Petron
Chairman Nicasio Alcantara said in a statement.

Petron, the largest oil refiner in the Southeast Asian
country, hoped to recover the cargo of fuel before bringing the
tanker to the surface, he said.

Coast guard and Petron officials have given conflicting
statements about whether there are new leaks from the tanker,
which is estimated to be 640 meters (2,100 feet) under water.

The Japanese salvage ship, which left Okinawa on Tuesday
night, is equipped with state-of-the-art equipment that
provides images of the ocean floor from a remotely operated

"After we determine the tanker's exact location and
condition, we can decide how best to remove the oil," Carlos
Tan, Petron's health, safety and environment manager, told

Philippine President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo ordered some
20 million pesos ($390,000) to be given to local governments in
the central Visayas region to provide relief to thousands of
people affected by the spill.

The 998-tonne tanker, Solar 1, was carrying about 2 million
liters of bunker oil. The initial spill of about 200,000 liters
affected 20 coastal villages and a marine park in Guimaras.

The slick has since spread to 27 fishing villages in the
towns of Concepcion and Ajuy in Iloilo, with officials saying
it now threatens the islands of Negros, Cebu and Masbate.

Beyond the spill fouling beaches and the waters of the
marine park, there are fears that the fuel could damage rich
fishing grounds and the local tourism industry. Officials have
warned residents not to eat anything from the sea but many,
with few alternatives for food, have ignored the advice.

Petron said it was employing an average of 740 people per
day in Guimaras, paying them 200 pesos each to clean the
beaches and mangrove trees of the black sludge.

($1= 51.4 pesos)