Philippines Investigates Whether Sunken Tanker's Origins Were Faked

The "newbuild" tanker Princess Empress may have been a converted "scrap" ship

Philippine Coast Guard personnel apply dispersants to a sheen from the spill (PCG)

Published Mar 19, 2023 9:10 PM by The Maritime Executive

The Philippines' maritime regulators are taking a closer look at the background of the tanker Princess Empress, which went down off Oriental Mindoro on February 28. The vessel had 900,000 liters of fuel oil on board, and the petroleum continues to leak out of its tanks, threatening a growing swath of the central Philippines with pollution. It is unclear whether the newbuild vessel had the correct documentation, and authorities now believe it is possible that it may have actually been a much older vessel - and may not even have started its life as a tanker. 

Last week, Philippine shipping regulator Marina told a senate panel that Princess Empress was sailing without a required amendment to the operator's Certificate of Public Convenience (CPC). Shipowner RDC Reield Marine Services held a valid CPC for its overall business, but had allegedly not submitted the financial documents needed to secure a permit for the new vessel. However, an RDC spokesperson said that the company had completed the paperwork, and the Philippine Coast Guard quickly produced what appeared to be a complete CPC permit for the ship, signed and dated by Marina. 

In an interview Thursday, a Marina spokesperson reiterated that the agency had no record of issuing a CPC permit for the ship, and noted that it would have published a public notice if it had given its approval. 

According to Rappler, PCG spokesperson Rear Adm. Armand Balilo responded Thursday that his agency's inspectors rely on the good faith of the captain when they are presented with a ship's paperwork. If the documents were false, he said, then the shipowner should be held accountable. 

The validity of the permit may have bearing on whether Princess Empress' insurer will have to pay for the extensive damages caused by the spill, including the loss of livelihood for thousands of fishermen and hospitality workers on Oriental Mindoro. The vessel had up to $1 billion in coverage for marine casualties, but any regulatory noncompliance on the operator's part could affect payout. A missing CPC would mean that Princess Empress could not legally sail on domestic voyages under Philippine law. "The insurance company will find a basis to not pay,” Sen. Cynthia Villar warned. "We should plan accordingly that we will not get that [payment]."

The Princess Empress' origins have also come into question since the sinking. Last week, Philippine Justice Secretary Jesus Crispin Remulla alleged that there may have been "misrepresentation" about the ship's status as a newbuild, and it may have been as much as 50 years old. 

"This ship is not a brand new vessel, it is a rebuilt scrap – a rebuilt scrap ship rebuilt twice to become a tanker. It was not built to be a tanker from the very beginning," he told Rappler. 

There may also have been previous close calls in which the vessel nearly capsized, he added. 

An individual who claimed knowledge of the vessel's conversion provided TV outlet 24 Oras with photos and video purporting to show the reconstruction process in progress. He claimed that the vessel began life not as a tanker, but as an LPG carrier, the MV Dorothy

Continued pollution

Oil is still leaking from the tanker, and a wind shift could carry it in a new direction. To date, it has drifted primarily to the south, down the east coast of Oriental Mindoro to the Caluya Islands. A change of weather patterns could push new leakage from the wreck site to the west, towards the town of Calapan, the provincial capital. This area is adjacent to the pristine Verde Island Passage (VIP), an area of exceptionally high biodiversity which serves as a breeding ground for important coastal fisheries. Marine scientists in the Philippines are concerned that if the spill reaches the VIP, it could cause severe damage.

“The Amihan winds [northeasterly seasonal trade winds], which contained most of the oil to the coasts of Nauhan and Pola in the previous weeks, are now more variable, allowing the oil to spread northwards,” warned the University of the Philippines’ Marine Science Institute (MSI). “It is critical to stop the seepage before the end of the Amihan season, otherwise more critical biodiversity areas along the Verde Island Passage may be affected.”

The Philippine Coast Guard and local partners continue to work to contain the spill and clean it up, and they have called for international assistance. Japan's government has dispatched a team of technical advisors, and the U.S. Coast Guard is sending officers for a briefing and a discussion on Monday, Rear Adm. Balilo confirmed over the weekend. “It will be up to the US Coast Guard on how it would respond to the request of the Commandant – if they will immediately respond and what kind of assistance they could extend,” Balilo told the Philippine Star. 

A Japanese salvage vessel, the Shin Nichi Maru, arrived in Calapan on Monday to assist with the spill response effort. The ship is equipped with an ROV, which will be used to confirm the wreck location and assist with efforts to stop the leakage, according to the Manila Bulletin.