THE UNITED States has sent eight experts to help the Philippines contain the oil spill from a sunken fuel tanker that authorities said has affected as many as 20,000 hectares of coral reefs.

The American experts arrived in Pola, Oriental Mindoro on Tuesday to support the oil spill response operations of the Philippine Coast Guard (PCG), the US Embassy in Manila said in a statement.

“Five members from the US Coast Guard’s National Strike Force will provide subject matter expertise and assess the affected areas to determine the most effective method and equipment to contain and clean up the oil spill from the sunken tanker MT Princess Empress,” it added..

“Through funding from the US Agency for International Development, two members of the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration will work closely with the Philippine Department of Environment and Natural Resources to conduct rapid environmental assessments of affected areas, identify priority areas at risk of environmental damage and assess needs for ecosystem restoration,” it added.

The embassy said its National Oceanic agency had provided the Philippine Coast Guard with satellite imagery to boost its assessment efforts.

It has also provided the University of the Philippines-Marine Sciences with support for scientific modeling to estimate the spill’s trajectory.

“Lastly, a US Navy supervisor of salvage and diving will evaluate the technical parameters required to support the possible deployment of a remotely operated vehicle.”

US Defense Secretary Lloyd James Austin III has vowed to deploy naval units to help in clean-up operations, the Presidential Communications Office said in a separate statement, citing a report from Defense Secretary Carlito G. Galvez, Jr.

“They are committed to help in coordination with Japan and other countries,” Mr. Galvez said in the statement, citing a phone call he had with Mr. Austin on Monday night.

The Philippine government last week said it was trying to fast-track the arrival of a remotely operated vehicle (ROV) from Japan that will locate the source of the oil leaking from the fuel tanker.

The Transportation department and Coast Guard were also looking for an alternative local ROV, the presidential palace 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.

Japan was the first country to help the Philippines in clean-up efforts, sending two teams of experts who have been tasked to coordinate with the Philippine Coast Guard. 

Mr. Galvez said Mr. Austin had assured him their Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Response team was “on their way to help and provide assistance in managing the oil spill.”

The Philippines’ 2014 Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) with the US seeks to boost the two countries’ cooperation on humanitarian assistance and disaster relief.

EDCA also seeks to promote interoperability, address short term capability gaps, promote long term modernization and boost maritime security and domain awareness.

Some senators have said the US had not done enough to help the Philippines in disaster response.

Mr. Galvez said he had proposed to include oil spill response in some of the “exercise scenarios” in the upcoming war games between the Philippines and US.

The Defense chief said the Philippine government would continue to seek the expertise and technical support of other countries such as France and the United Kingdom in containing the spill.

Meanwhile, the presidential palace said in a separate statement the government of President Ferdinand R. Marcos, Jr. would sustain the assistance program for families affected by the oil spill, which has affected coastal provinces in the Mimaropa and Western Visayas regions.

Affected families have increased to more than 32,000, the palace said, citing a regional task force report.

The National Government, local government units and nongovernment groups have provided P28.3 million worth of humanitarian assistance these families, it added.

Meanwhile, the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (BFAR) said it had found low-level contaminants in collected fish samples. 

Traces of petroleum products were detected in water samples, while low-level contaminants or polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH) were found in the fish samples, the agency said, citing preliminary findings.

“The results of the analyses are not yet conclusive as far as food safety is concerned,” BFAR said in a statement.

“Further sampling and analyses are being conducted to establish time-series results on the effect of the oil spill on fish concerning food safety, taking into account the magnitude of the oil spill which has reached neighboring areas like Caluya, Antique and some municipalities of Palawan,” it added. — Kyle Aristophere T. Atienza and S.J.T.