Practicality dictates that some degree of “triage” be exercised in managing the aftermath of a disaster as enormous as Typhoon Yolanda; while that may make us spiritually uncomfortable—there is something seemingly callous about assessing something as absolute as suffering in relative terms—the reality is personnel and resources cannot be deployed in adequate numbers everywhere simultaneously.
Of course, most of the criticism from here and abroad over the government’s mishandling of the massive relief and reconstruction effort is really a condemnation of the abuse of the unavoidable necessity of prioritizing help to some over others. The distinctions between which local tragedies are more horrifying are not at all subtle, and so when the responsible parties ignore the ones that so clearly need attention ahead of other matters such as, say, quibbling over what the proper format of assistance is in the context of one’s surname or choosing which obsolete politician should be given a job as a consultant, it tends to be rather obvious.
That is exactly the situation in Estancia, Iloilo, where Typhoon Yolanda not only caused significant damage from effects that would be “normally” associated with a strong storm, but also dislodged Power Barge 103 from its moorings. The barge, which supplies power to the northern part of Iloilo province, was grounded on the rocky harbor bottom and broke open, causing its cargo of 1.4 million liters of Bunker C-type fuel oil to begin leaking. As of November 21, the day an environmental assessment team from the United Nations visited Estancia, an estimated 800,000 liters of fuel had already spilled, fouling the coast from Estancia to about 10 kilometers to the south.
Without the typhoon, the Estancia spill would be a disaster of grave proportions demanding a full-scale, immediate emergency response; in the aftermath of Typhoon Yolanda, however, it is treated as nothing more than a mere note in an entire symphony of pain. The details of the Joint UNEP/OCHA Environment Unit (JEU) report—UNEP is the United Nations Environmental Program, and OCHA is the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs—paint a frightening picture.
Bunker C oil is one of the nastiest substances ever concocted by the petrochemical industry; it is made from the residue of refining processes that create other fuels such as diesel and gasoline, and according to the report, “is typically contaminated with other chemicals such as nickel, vanadium and sulfur and may contain hydrogen sulfide.” During their three-day visit, the UN team surveyed the bay at Embarcadero, Batad (about six kilometers south of Estancia), and were alarmed to discover that the oil had spread three kilometers inland due to tidal flow and had contaminated the mangroves; not only will it kill these, the extensive root systems of the mangroves carry the oil into the subsoil and water table, thus rendering the entire tidewater ecosystem toxic for years to come.
At the site of the spill itself, the UN team was highly critical of the efforts—or lack thereof—toward containing and removing the oil spilled already, preventing the remaining oil from leaking out of the damaged barge, providing proper basic safety equipment for the workers clearing the spill (most of whom are locals hired temporarily for the dirty, hazardous work), and maintaining basic security of the accident site. About 2,500 people living within about 400 meters of the barge were moved to temporary shelters, mostly due to the health risks of the heavy oil vapors in the air.
But according to PJ Aranador, a sustainable lifestyle designer of some international repute and unabashed advocate for his hometown (his personal blog, pjaranador.blogspot.com, is an eye-opening look at the goings-on in Estancia, particularly in the wake of Typhoon Yolanda) who visited the site on December 7, the number of evacuees is actually much higher than that, perhaps as many as 5,000. The reason for this, according to Arandor, is that conditions are, if anything, even worse than what the UN team described. “I was there for only a little while, and I had to leave because the fumes from the oil are so strong,” he explained when I talked to this past Wednesday afternoon. “Even now, I’m still feeling sick with headache from it. And just imagine, the guys who are trying to clean it up have no proper equipment to protect them.”
Aranador confirmed that most of what the UN team observed was still the norm, nearly two weeks later; the cleanup is proceeding at a pace that would be charitably described as “relaxed,” and there is little to prevent people from being exposed to further harm. “There really is no security, except for the area right near the barge,” he explained. “The local people are in and out of the area constantly, doing what they need to do to get on with their lives.” As to the cleanup project itself, not much urgency is apparent. Aranador did say that a vessel apparently intended to remove the oil still in the barge was on site, but it was not operating. And apart from the representative from the cleanup contractor who showed Aranador and his party around the area, there is no apparent authority present, either; both the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) and the Coast Guard, the two agencies one would expect to see at the scene of a massive oil spill, are curiously absent from Estancia.
Aranador also expressed grave concern over another issue highlighted by the UN assessment, the disposal of the waste oil and contaminated debris collected. “There are hundreds of barrels of waste piling up in the area,” Aranador said. “Does anyone have a plan to dispose of them?”
For his part, Aranador lays some of the blame for the lack of urgency to properly address Estancia’s environmental nightmare on the municipal government of Mayor Rene Cordero. “The mayor certainly isn’t doing anything to push the cleanup along,” he complained. “He moved quickly to take care of Gaisano let them force our public market to move into an unsafe, crowded area by the shoreline, but isn’t moving very quickly now.” Mayor Cordero, however, may not really be in a position to prod the government and the National Power Corp. (Napocor), which owns the barge, into moving any faster even if he wanted to.
The odd arrangement by which “Kuan Yu Global Technologies,” a company which before 2012 was Maxx Ionized Alkaline Water Inc., which in its 2013 information filed at the Securities and Exchange Commission disclosed P62,500 in paid-up capital and P75,000 in assets, and which gives a business address in Western Bicutan where no business exists, came to be awarded the contract to clean up the Estancia oil spill was first revealed by Philstar columnist Alex Magno on December 3. What was not revealed, however, was what hand Senate President and all-around skepticism-arousing operator Franklin Drilon might have had in the process. Maybe none, but his announcing the award of the contract was highly unusual; particularly so after the bidding was rushed through in a matter of about an hour on the evening of November 20 (which was, coincidentally or not, the day before the arrival of the UN assessment team).
Further complicating matters is the fact that Power Barge 103 was part of a P150-million rehabilitation and operating contract (which also included barges 101 and 102) awarded to SPC Power Corp. by the Power Sector Assets and Liabilities Management (Psalm) just a week before the typhoon. Presumably, Psalm had not yet turned over 103 to SPC by the time Yolanda struck, but what effect the accident had on that contract and who bears the ultimate responsibility for cleaning up the mess may now be a matter of some dispute.
In the meantime, of course, the environment and the people of Estancia continue to suffer. The calamity might have been caused by an impressive act of nature, but the sad reality that the calamity continues to grow worse is entirely an act of men. Men who need to be called to account for it immediately, and replaced with others who will do the job they have failed to even start. This may be another one of those things outside the “area of expertise” of former senator Lacson, the country’s new “rehabilitation czar,” but since he’s taken the job, that’s his problem; the livelihoods of thousands around Estancia, not to mention the opportunity for him to deflect the deep public skepticism about his abilities and intentions, depend on his not compounding the Estancia’s tragedy by ignoring it.