Media highlight environmental damage from the Mindoro oil spill

This Week in Media (March 13 to 18, 2023)

NEWSROOMS HAVE kept up coverage of the oil spill since the tanker MT Princess Empress capsized off the coast of Naujan, Oriental Mindoro on February 28. In three weeks, 900 thousand liters of industrial oil spread out quickly to nearby coastal waters and beyond. At press time, 77 coastal barangays from nine towns in Oriental Mindoro have been declared under state of calamity. The Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) also reported that the oil slick has reached Isla Verde, an area of rich biodiversity, as well as the island barangay of Casian in Taytay town, Palawan. 

TV reports documented the disaster using a loop of visuals through the first week of coverage. Print media tapped their regional correspondents to provide updates and occasional photos, while their main sections were dedicated to the Senate hearing. Online media followed the same stories, with a few special reports focused on environmental concerns.  

At the start, media reported the creation of Task Force Naujan Oil Spill on March 3, noting that its head, Environment Undersecretary Marilou Erni, was coordinator of corporate ground response during the Guimaras oil spill in 2006. But aside from BusinessMirror’s March 6 report that Erni convened an emergency interagency meeting, the public did not hear any more updates from the task force, either through statements or press briefings. 

Media also turned to the Senate probe which started March 14, as newscasts publicized issues of accountability, pointing to the following: MT Princess Empress did not have a permit to operate per records of the Maritime Industry Authority (MARINA) and was allowed to travel nine times despite the lack. News accounts also reported that PCG showed online documents showing the vessel did have a permit – but backtracked to say it would investigate the authenticity of the papers. So far, PCG has not given further information on this issue. 

On March 16, Justice Secretary Jesus Crispin Remulla held a press briefing at the DOJ premises to discuss his agency’s initial findings on the oil spill. He cited information from an individual who executed an affidavit saying the tanker was a “rebuilt scrap” that “was not built to be a tanker from the very beginning.” Newscasts picked up this information, with 24 Oras making this its top story that day.

The Philippine Daily Inquirer on March 15 zeroed in on the failure of government response on the national level. Its report cited the concerns of local government officials who testified during the Senate hearing that they did not know who to coordinate with for immediate assistance for those displaced from their homes, for loss of livelihood as well as for clean-up operations. The first week of TV coverage showed residents scooping out the oil on their shores with pails and coconut husks. Residents and local officials of Calapan City, which was reached by the spill on March 17, began on their own initiative construction of makeshift oil spill booms to contain the slick. 

An report on March 14 cited the complaint of Gov. Humerlito Dolor during the Senate hearing that the spill booms the PCG placed in Naujan were insufficient, as these were only 250 to 300 meters wide. 

TV repeatedly used photos and footage to note the extent of contamination in a particular town. But health advisories for residents were limited to the first few days of the spill. 

Some media, including CNN Philippines, GMA-7, One PH and TeleRadyo focused proactively on environmental concerns; citing the UP Marine Science Institute (UP MSI) as the group has taken the lead, making projections of the spill’s coverage and explaining how weather significantly affects its spread. The practice recalled media’s approach during the 2020 Taal Volcano eruption, when newsrooms cited the information and forecasts of the Philippine Institute of Volcanology and Seismology (Phivolcs).

Other stories focused on the importance of biodiversity preservation, including’s piece on mangroves and the need to protect these from oil contamination. Rappler’s story cited environmental groups that emphasized the need for prompt action to contain the oil spread in order to prevent long-term effects on the environment and economy. The same piece also recalled what other countries had done to limit the damage of oil spills, noting that these measures may not necessarily work for the Philippines.

News must fix public attention on the accountability on the part of business companies and the government agencies regulating their conduct. Media must document how well or weakly government enforces safety regulations and how efficiently or poorly it responds with action to mitigate harm when accidents occur. 

Media must develop a strong explanatory approach so the public knows more about this shared vulnerability. The more they realize the extent of damage oil spills can cause, the better watchdog citizens become over the systems established for their protection and that of the waters that provide life and livelihood for so many Filipinos. 

Media must sustain its coverage until the facts are out, making clear who the culprits are, who must pay compensation and be punished for their misdeeds.