Oil leak from sunken Philippine tanker prompts swimming bans

Oil leaking from a Philippine tanker that sank southwest of the capital has prompted at least seven coastal towns to ban fishing and swimming as authorities scramble to contain the spill, officials said Thursday.

The MT Princess Empress, which was carrying 20 crewmembers and a cargo of about 800,000 liters (210,000 gallons) of industrial fuel oil, sank Tuesday at Balingawan point off Naujan town in Oriental Mindoro province after its engine overheated while traveling to central Iloilo province, the Philippine coast guard said.

A passing foreign cargo ship rescued the crew and took them to shore, coast guard officials said.

The oil spill affected a stretch of sea about 6 kilometers (3.7 miles) long and 4 kilometers (2.5 miles) wide off Naujan town by Wednesday, according to the coast guard.

A provincial disaster response officer, Vincent Gahol, said by telephone that the spill had spread from Naujan to six other southern towns, where swimming and fishing up to 5 kilometers (3 miles) from the coast have been indefinitely banned.

Dozens of beach resorts line the affected towns, and 14 government-protected marine areas, which are off-limits to fishing to encourage spawning, were also under threat, he said.

“The oil spill has reached the shoreline,” Gahol said, adding that residents of some villages have complained of a foul smell from the spilled oil. “These are not just traces. People are getting pails of black and sticky sludge in some places.”

Seawater samples taken by authorities were contaminated by industrial fuel oil, which the tanker was transporting as cargo, indicating it is leaking in addition to the engine fuel used to run the vessel, the coast guard said. It said it was difficult to estimate how much of the oil had leaked.

It would be difficult for authorities to locate the sunken tanker to siphon off any remaining oil, Gahol said.

Coast guard personnel are placing oil spill booms and using chemical oil dispersants to protect the most vulnerable coastal villages, and Environmental Department personnel are helping in coastal cleanups to minimize the damage, officials said.