Oil from sunken tanker swamps central Philippine coast

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Clean-up efforts were under way on the blackened coasts of a central Philippine island Thursday after spillage from a sunken oil tanker washed ashore, the country’s environment minister said, as fears of economic and environmental harm grew.

The oil spill off Naujan town on Mindoro island reached the shores of the next four municipalities on the island’s east coast around noon Thursday, and appeared to be flowing further south, Environment Secretary Maria Antonia Loyzaga said in a statement.

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As it sailed into rough seas off Naujan on Tuesday, the Princess Empress sank with its cargo of 800,000 liters (210,000 gallons) of industrial fuel oil.

Another vessel rescued the 20 crew members on board, but the Princess Empress leaked some of its cargo into the sea after initially spilling diesel fuel which had been powering the vessel, the Philippine Coast Guard said.

Environment personnel “are now focusing on coastal clean-up” given the extent of the affected shoreline, Loyzaga said.

Divers will meanwhile assess the impact on reefs, mangroves and sea grasses, as “possible contamination might actually affect the viability of these systems.”

She added: “We expect that these efforts will require personnel who will need to work over a period of time.”

The spill had spread over 24 square kilometers (nine square miles) of water by Wednesday, the coastguard said previously.

It is not known how much diesel fuel and industrial fuel oil is in the water.

Provincial governor Humerlito Dolor said a search was still under way for the stricken tanker, estimated to be 460 meters (1,500 feet) under the sea.

“The coastguard made assurances to us that they are ready to syphon off the oil once they identify (the location),” Dolor told local media.

“Unfortunately, after two aerial surveillance (flights) we still can’t find the exact location of the ship.”

In the meantime, the coastguard has deployed oil spill booms to try to contain the material and sprayed chemicals to break down the oil.

Fishermen and tourism operators along the coast depend heavily on the waters for their livelihoods.

Oil has been spotted along a roughly 60-kilometre stretch of water between Naujan and Bongabong municipality, said Ram Temena, disaster operations chief in the affected province of Oriental Mindoro.

“We have many fish sanctuaries along the coast,” Temena said.

“It could have a huge impact due to the possibility that the oil could attach to the coral reefs, affecting the marine biodiversity.”

Bongabong municipal disaster officer Michael Fanoga said fishermen had complained of a “foul smell” about two kilometers offshore.

“If it spreads in the shoreline, our beaches will be destroyed as well as the remaining coral,” Fanoga said.

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