Tens of thousands of liters of oil that’s spilling from a sunken tanker off the coast of the Philippines has coated pristine beaches and diving spots in an island province, sickening dozens of residents and threatening its tourist industry and rich marine biodiversity, officials said.
The MT Princess Empress sank off Oriental Mindoro southwest of the capital Manila on February 28, discharging its cargo of industrial fuel oil into the waters around the province, where authorities have declared a state of calamity for nine towns and banned swimming and fishing as they battle one of the region’s worst ever disasters.
Jennifer Cruz, mayor of the coastal town of Pola, which has been heavily affected by the spill, told CNN affiliate CNN Philippines on Thursday that more than 50 residents had fallen ill, reporting symptoms of cough, dizziness, eye irritation and fever.
“In the span of nine days, it’s getting worse. The stench from the oil is getting stronger as the weather is also getting hotter,” Cruz told CNN Philippines. “More people are also getting sick. I also was not able to visit one of the affected areas because I started feeling unwell due to the smell.”
Photos from Pola show black pools of oil floating in the water and drifting onto the shore against a lush backdrop of palm trees, while response teams pick up fuel-stained debris by hand.
The island province of more than 900,000 people is reeling from the impact of the disaster as beach resorts say guests have canceled bookings just weeks before the peak Holy Week holiday season.
“The oil has reached our beachfront property and it’s sticking to the sand,” said Marino Enriquez, operations manager of the Blue Star Beach Resort in Pola. “Some people also feel unwell from the strong smell of the oil that’s been washing ashore for days now.”
The scale of the environmental impact is yet to be determined, according to authorities.
At least 21 protected marine areas containing coral reefs, seagrass beds and mangroves could be harmed if the spill is not contained, the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) said.
According to Pola Mayor Cruz, oil is already covering mangroves, which play a role in preventing coastal erosion and offer protection from extreme weather events like the typhoons that regularly hit the Philippines.
Japan is sending a disaster relief team to help with the cleanup, the country’s ambassador to Manila said on Twitter Wednesday. Efforts to contain the spill have been halted several times for the health and safety of response team members, according to the Philippine Coast Guard.
Meanwhile, authorities are still scrambling to recover the tanker, which sank near the Verde Island passage, a busy marine transport lane between the main island of Luzon, where Manila is located, and the island of Mindoro.
The MT Princess Empress was carrying 800,000 liters (211,340 gallons) of industrial fuel oil when it sank en route from the northern Bataan province to the central province of Iloilo after its engine overheated, according to the Philippine Coast Guard.
The sunken vessel is estimated to be releasing oil at a rate of 35,000 to 50,000 liters (around 9,240 to 13,200 gallons) a day, according to DENR.
The spill has reached the far-flung Cuyo Island island group, according to DENR, which is in line with a forecast by the University of the Philippines Marine Science Institute that it will continue to spread in the southwest direction, threatening northern Palawan – another biologically diverse region.
As a precautionary measure, the Philippine Coast Guard has also deployed personnel to monitor the resort island of Boracay, a major tourist destination that only reopened in 2018 following rehabilitation work.
Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. said in a statement Wednesday he hopes the cleanup will be completed within four months.