THE PHILIPPINE government is trying to fast-track the arrival of a remotely operated vehicle (ROV) from Japan that will locate the source of the oil leaking from a sunken fuel tanker that experts said have affected as many as 20,000 hectares of coral reefs.

The Transportation department and Coast Guard were also looking for an alternative local ROV, the presidential palace said in a statement on Thursday, citing a report from Defense Secretary Carlito G. Galvez, Jr.

Ceanup workers have collected almost a thousand sacks of oil-contaminated debris and 77.5 drums of waste from the Feb. 28 oil spill near Oriental Mindoro province south of the Philippine capital, the Presidential Communications Office said.

MT Princess Empress was carrying 800,000 liters of industrial fuel oil on Feb. 28 when it sank off the waters of Naujan, Oriental Mindoro, which surrounds the Verde Island Passage, one of the world’s most diverse marine habitats.

Marine experts estimate that as many as 20,000 hectares of coral reefs, 9,900 hectares of mangroves and 6,000 hectares of seagrass have been affected by the spill.

The task force managing the oil spill and provincial government should coordinate with the Customs, Immigration and Quarantine bureaus “to expedite the entry of the incoming response team with remotely operated vehicle from Japan to arrive in the country on March 20,” Mr. Galvez said in the report.

The vehicle was provided by Harbor Star, a private company contracted by the insurance firm of RDC Reield Marine Services, Inc., which owns the sunken vessel, the palace said.

Malayan Salvage and Towing Corp., a was also helping in trying to contain the spill, it said.

The oil spill has affected 143,713 people from 31,497 in 122 villages, the palace said. It threatens the livelihood of more than 13,000 fishermen.

At least 169 people were reported to have fallen ill due to the oil spill, the palace said.

President Ferdinand R. Marcos, Jr. has “assured the affected communities that the government will extend assistance particularly through the cash-for-work program.”

MT Princess Empress has been located 389.1 meters below sea and 13.89 kilometers northeast of Balingawan Point in Pola, Mindoro.

The government and private sector have provided more than P43.5 million worth of assistance to 74 areas in the Mimaropa and Western Visayas regions.

A state of calamity has been declared in the towns of Bansud, Bongabong, Bulalacao, Gloria, Mansalay, Naujan, Pinamalayan, Pola and Roxas in Oriental Mindoro and in Caluya, Antique province.

Meanwhile, Party-list Reps. Arlene D. Brosas, France L. Castro and Raoul Danniel A. Manuel filed House Resolution 869 seeking to investigate the oil spill.

They also sought sanctions against RDC Reield.

“There should be compensation for those affected by the oil spill that goes beyond ‘cash-for-work’ or mere short-term compensation,” Ms. Castro told a news briefing. She noted that under the law, a ship owner responsible for oil pollution is legally obliged to pay for damages.

“Environmental damage is equivalent to economic damage,” Aldrein Silanga, campaign officer of the Kalikasan People’s Network for the Environment, told the briefing.

Ms. Castro said the national and local governments should provide health services to people affected by the spill.

The Senate on Tuesday started its own probe, where it found that MT Princess Empress did not have a permit to operate.

RDC Reield has a pending application for a change in its certificate of public convenience and wanted to include MT Princess Empress in its permit, Hernani N. Fabia, administrator of the Maritime  Industry Authority, told senators.

During the hearing, RDC Vice President Fritzee Tee said the sunken tanker had sailed nine times before it sank.

The company, she added, had applied to include the vessel in its permit as early as November, with all documents passed by December. It sailed after submitting all the requirements.

But the Philippine Coast Guard later released a document showing that the sunken oil tanker had a permit to operate.

In a Facebook post, the Coast Guard shared six pages of the certificate of public convenience supposedly issued by Marina to RDC Reield.

In the document, Marina approved the inclusion of MT Princess Empress in RDC’s fleet since it was “financially capable to maintain its operations.”

The certificate issued on Nov. 16, 2022 also indicated that the permit will expire on Feb. 6, 2042.

Coast Guard spokesman Armando A. Balilo on Wednesday said the vessel had used the permit four times in its transactions with the Coast Guard — once each in Manila, Cebu, Misamis Oriental and Iloilo.

He added that the Coast Guard would check whether the signatures on the document had been forged and whether Marina had really agreed to grant the certificate.

Greenpeace Philippines on March 14 urged the government to seek accountability from the owner of the sunken vessel “for the irreparable and ongoing damage” of the oil spill.

In a statement, the environmental group said companies responsible for the spill should “go beyond cleanup” and pay damages for destroying the environment and causing livelihood loss.

“The government must compel companies involved to show responsibility and transparency and act with more urgency in stopping the spill and in compensating communities,” Greenpeace campaigner Jefferson M. Chua said.

Fideles D. Sallidao, director of th Philippine Coast Guard National Operations Center for Oil Pollution, earlier said the vessel had come from the SL Harbor Bulk Terminal Corp. in Lima, Bataan and was on its way to Iloilo City in central Philippines.

Greenpeace said authorities should designate sea lanes for ships transporting hazardous materials away from rich fishing areas and critical marine reserves.

It also reiterated its call to phase out fossil fuels to prevent further damage to the environment and protect communities, noting that it is impossible to fully clean up an oil spill. — K.A.T. Atienza and B.M.D. Cruz