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Saving Guimaras island from the worst oil spill in the Philippines

Thirteen years ago, an oil tanker hired by Petron Corporation sank off the coast of Guimaras, an island province in the Philippines, spilling more than 2.1 million litres of bunker fuel. How has the island recovered from this disaster?

On August 11, 2006, the oil tanker M/T Solar 1, hired by Petron Corporation, sank off the coast of Guimaras, an island province in the Philippines, spilling more than 2.1 million litres (about 555,000 gallons) of bunker fuel. It is still known as the worst oil spill in the Philippines’ history. The oil that contaminated the water was not only devastating for the environment but also for the people and the economy of Guimaras.

“I was shocked to see dead fishes floating in the water. Then, there was oil all over the place,” Jean Gajo, a local fisherman who doubles as a tour guide, said while pointing to the beach and waters that are now once again white and blue. But after the spill, the island and sea had been painted black.

According to the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR), the crisis affected 1,500 hectares (more than 3,700 acres) of the local ecosystem comprised of mangroves, seagrass, and coral reefs.

Among the affected areas, Taklong Island Marine Natural Reserve (TINMR), a national marine sanctuary and protected area, was the hardest hit. TINMR serves as breeding grounds for various fish species that are caught outside its boundary.

Because the water was contaminated, a full stop on fishing was implemented, putting an end to the only livelihood that 20,000 fisherfolks had known for decades. Tourism, another economic driver of the island, was also temporarily banned while the clean-up was ongoing. Guimaras lost billions of pesos. The tragic event demanded long-term rehabilitation if the island was to recover.

Various international non-profit organizations, government agencies, and academic institutions collaborated in responding to the crisis. These agencies included the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), the International Maritime Organization (IMO), Greenpeace, World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council (NDRRMC), DENR, the Philippines’ Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (BFAR), and the University of the Philippines Visayas (UPV), among others.

Thirteen years later, Guimaras once again boasts pristine beaches with white sand; TINMR is crowned as “the Jewel of Guimaras”; and the fisherfolks have returned to harvesting the abundance of the waters.

Cleaning up the oil

NOAA’s comprehensive guide to oil spill strategies includes booming, skimming, barriers/berms, physical herding, manual oil removal/cleaning, mechanical oil removal, sorbents, vacuum, debris removal, sediment reworking/tilling, and in situ burning, among other activities.

However, the responses depend mainly on various factors, such as the amount of oil involved, the type and quality of oil, the conditions prevailing in the area, and where the incident happened. The responses need to be science-based in order to minimize the possible negative impacts, like soil erosion and environmental contamination.

The locals immediately attempted to contain the oil after the spill. Bayanihan, a Filipino concept of helping each other, emerged from the crisis.

“At first, it was just the local villagers who were soaking up the oil,” Gajo said. But as soon as the news of the spill spread, people came to volunteer in the cleanup.

Because TINMR was in a remote area where the roads were not yet cemented, mechanical removal using heavy equipment was not possible, so the community had to clean the spill site manually.

Initially, the responders used human hair to create a boom to contain the oil. There was a national campaign asking for hair, an effective oil absorbent. Beauty salons and barbershops from different parts of the country collected cut hair and sent them to Guimaras. However, the use of human hair was eventually discouraged.

“It has a slow degradation. It’s also hard to retrieve when it goes into the environment. Human hair may have been exposed to chemicals used at parlors, too. It may end up only as a pollutant,” explained Dr. Resurrecion B. Sadaba, who manages the University of the Philippines Visayas Oil Spill Response Program (UPV-OSRP), created to address the cleanup and serve as the repository of research data used in evaluating the rehabilitation and recovery of the island.

The responders instead began making artisan booms out of bamboos, rattan, leaves, coconut husks, and rice straw, among other natural materials found in the surrounding area. The artisan booms were placed along the beaches to hold the oil back.

The oil that had reached the shoreline was removed by physical wiping with the use of commercial sorbent pads. The hard-to-remove oil was left to degrade naturally.

Cleanup at sea was conducted by the Philippine Coast Guards (PCG), Petron Corporation, and foreign assistance, mainly using oil spill dispersants (OSDs). According to the Oil Spill Prevention Response, OSDs serve as a cleaner, removing the oil from the water surface and breaking them down into smaller particles, which biodegrade more quickly and easily.

Contracted by the company that had insured the Solar 1 and using a ship designed for oil spill recovery, Sonsub, an Italian oil and gas company, recovered the remaining oil from the sunken vessel that lay 640 meters (about 2,100 feet) underwater.

Two remotely operated vehicles (ROVs) deployed underwater and monitored by robotic cameras drilled two holes in each of the 10 sunken cargo containers. One hole was used to introduce water into the tank, pushing the oil out to the second hole that was connected to a shuttle container. The operation continued 24 hours a day, seven days a week during the recovery. After 21 days, a total of 9 cubic meters (about 9000 liters) of oil was recovered.

The shoreline and at-sea cleanup lasted for a year. Responders collected an estimated 282,000 bags (about 2,100 tons) of natural materials used for the spill booms and recovered oil, which were used as an alternative fuel for cement processing in Mindanao.

Mangroves and seagrass

report shows that the province of Guimaras estimated a total of 648.98 hectares of mangroves forests were affected. Some 469.18 hectares were heavily oiled, while the remaining 179.8 hectares were slightly covered. Three months after the oil spill, 0.93 hectares of mangroves died.

Sadaba says that natural recovery is most appropriate for oil spill cleanup in mangrove forests. OSDs or chemical cleaners must not be used directly in mangroves and surrounding sediments because they may contain chemical components that are toxic to mangrove fauna. “Best action is no action at all. Let nature recover by itself. It’s biodegradation. It’s faster. It’s safer,” he emphasized.

Sadaba noted that, based on his experience from the Semirara Antique oil spill, which happened a few months before the Guimaras oil spill, the responders who went inside the mangrove forests to contain the oil probably stepped on the mangroves, doing more harm than good.

Together with another UPV-OSRP scientist, Dr. Abner Barnuevo, Sadaba published a study that showed various mangroves had experienced structural changes, albinism, and other abnormalities. The structural changes, such as a decrease in leaf size and stunted growth, were attributed to the oil spill.

“Mangrove recovery is based on the tree’s normal functions, such as flowering, fruiting, and growing of the seedlings,” Sadaba said. “In 2014, the mangroves have started exhibiting their normal functions. It’s a sign of recovery.”

University of the Philippines Marine Biological Station (UPV-MBS) head Prof. Marie Frances Nievales studied the situation of another vital part of the marine ecosystem: seagrass. Seagrass meadows, which serve as breeding and nursing grounds for a variety of marine fauna, are an indicator of marine and coastal ecosystems’ health. Also, like the mangroves, seagrass minimizes soil erosion and helps protect coastlines against typhoons and rising tides.

In her study, Prof. Nievales found structural changes in the seagrass of TINMR, including a decrease in seagrass cover and shoot density.

“Seagrass provides economic and ecological services. But these were hampered by the oil spill,” Nievales said. “We also noticed that sea cucumbers in the seagrass meadows were depleting. We did a stock replenishing of sea cucumbers.”

Continuing research for rehabilitation and reconstruction

The cleanup did not stop after the visible oil was gone. The OSDs and other factors such as tidal activity and temperature had broken the oil down into smaller particles in the water and sediment. Aside from being highly insoluble in water, these smaller particles of oil were left for microorganisms to be utilised as sources of carbon and energy. This is biodegradation.

“Continuous monitoring of the polyaromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) level in the water was conducted,” Sadaba noted. PAHs are carcinogenic to humans and an indicator of the presence of oil. Therefore, PAH levels in the contaminated area have been closely monitored. It took three years before PAHs went down to a safe level according to the acceptable standard set by NOAA.

Dr. Terence P.N. Talorete, a Japan-based Filipino research scientist, suggested the use of bioremediation, a process that speeds up biodegradation. Bioremediation is “the act of adding materials to the contaminated environments to cause acceleration of the natural biodegradation process,” Tolorete said.

The key to this process is the hydrocarbon-degrading bacteria that feed on the heavy oil, which are introduced to an environment contaminated by a spill. When the oil is gone, the bacteria die naturally without harming the environment. Biodegradation with remediation has been applied in the two worst oil spills in U.S. history, namely the Exxon Valdez oil spill in 1989 and the BP disaster and oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010. However, bioremediation has not been applied in the Guimaras oil spill because further studies were needed.

In the context of the Philippines, bioremediation has been done only in laboratory setups. However, Sadaba and Dekota, a Czech Republic-based environmental research company, have recommended that bioremediation be included in the country’s National Oil Spill Contingency Plan.

Though the UPV-OSRP was initially commissioned for five years, Sadaba was able to extend it to seven due to the need to monitor the recovery of the island.

“The oil spill response program must be institutionalized,” Sadaba said. In the Philippines, there has been an increasing number of oil spill crises. However, there is no existing agency that addresses such concerns. “In every oil spill, the solution differs in each case. But there are patterns. There are good practices that can be replicated.”

He also said that the institutionalization of UPV-OSRP will lessen the country’s expenses in addressing oil spill issues. At present, responses to those issues are primarily sought from consultants hired abroad.

Strengthening coastal management and protection, empowering local communities

With marine resources contaminated, fisherfolk lost their livelihood. Their daily means of survival were put at risk. To address this, coastal families earned incomes through cash-for-work programmes such as the oil clean-up and mangrove planting. DENR provided training on tour guiding, souvenir making, catering, and t-shirt printing, among other activities that could provide alternative livelihoods to local community members.

“It is helpful. Because even right now, I still use the skill that I got from the training,” said Lily Galabo, one of the beneficiaries of the livelihood program. At present, Guimaras is strengthening its ecotourism, in which the skills provided are useful.

In 2007, the government of Guimaras sought the help of Partnerships in Environmental Management for the Seas of East Asia (PEMSEA) in implementing international coastal management (ICM), a natural resource and environmental management framework for managing issues in coastal areas.

“The island now has a comprehensive plan on coastal management and protection, ecotourism, and active members,” Rhett Arthur Diana, TINMR protected area superintendent, said.

Government agencies and local community members worked together in implementing the ICM. Local government units (LGUs) provide financial support to marine conservation and law enforcement activities, while DENR, the executive department responsible for overseeing the welfare of the country’s natural resources, partners with local communities.

The ICM takes a “ridge-to-reef” approach, protecting the forest up to the reef. An intensified information campaign has been launched to educate not only the locals but also the tourists. Strict enforcement of maritime laws was implemented, wherein mechanisms were established to ensure environmental protection.

“During the oil spill, some water animals had disappeared. There was silence. You could not hear the chirping of the birds or any other sounds of animals,” said Diana, who documented the mangroves during the rapid assessment. “Now, there are sightings of monitor lizards, water birds like egrets, mudskippers, etc.”

Before the oil spill, there was a lack of data on the fauna on the island, and without baseline data it was difficult to establish the oil spill’s effect on local fauna. Because of the ICM, Guimaras now has a list of both flora and fauna on the island.

“I used to cut down mangrove trees for firewood purposes,” Nard Labado confessed. “I didn’t know about their importance. Now, as a fisherman and resident of a coastal area, I help in mangrove planting and educate my children about the importance of the environment.”

As a member of PEMSEA, Guimaras releases “State of the Coast,” a reporting system developed primarily to present the progress and impacts of ICM implementation. Because of this, PEMSEA considers Guimaras a model for sustainable development and coastal management in the East Asian Seas Region.

Eventually, Guimaras won the 2017 Para El Mar (For the Seas) competition. It arose as champion of the National Integrated Protected Areas System (NIPAS) category, a Marine Protected Areas Support Network annual recognition of best practices in the effective management and science-based governance of marine-protected areas.

DENR trained and educated the local community members on environmental protection and conservation. After the training, they have started planting mangroves and reported suspected poaching and other illegal fishing activities on the island. Equipped with the training provided, they now serve as guardians of the island, making sure that oil spills or any other environmental crises will not happen.

This story was published with permission from Mongabay.com.

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