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Small Tanker Sinks and Spills Fuel off Philippines

Princess Empress oil slick
Slick from the wreck of the Princess Empress, March 1 (PCG)

Published Mar 1, 2023 9:01 PM by The Maritime Executive

A sunken tanker is spilling petroleum into the water off the coast of Balingawan Point, Mindoro, in the Philippines' Tayabas Bay. 

The recently-built tanker Princess Empress partially sank off Balingawan Point on Tuesday after losing power in rough seas. The 20 members of her crew were all safely rescued by a good samaritan vessel, and no injuries were reported.

However, the vessel was carrying a cargo of about 210,000 gallons of fuel oil, and it began spilling petroleum into the water, the PCG reported. A helicopter overflight first detected the slick, and the PCG initially determined that the substance was diesel, not the cargo of fuel oil. 

The situation worsened overnight. Princess Empress slipped fully below the waves on Wednesday, and the PCG confirmed the presence of an oil spill, "black and thick with strong odor." The response tug Titan has been dispatched to spray dispersants and to conduct limited oil recovery, and the crew located what they believe to be the source point of the spill at a position about seven nautical miles off Balingawan Point. The Titan's crew are collecting water samples for evaluation by the PCG's in-house environmental protection unit. 

Images courtesy PCG

The Philippines' Department of Environment and Natural Resources reported Wednesday that the spill has grown to cover about five square miles of surface area. If it continues to expand, it could affect up to three dozen different local marine protected areas, including the highly biodiverse Verde Island Passage. The PCG will deploy booms to protect the most sensitive locations, according to the department.

Multiple rescues

The Princess Empress was just one of three vessels to run into serious trouble in the Philippines this week. In addition to the sunken tanker, the ro/ro ferry Starlite Saturn went aground off Cebu Island Tuesday night, stranding nearly 100 passengers and prompting an evacuation by small boat; and the inter-island freighter Manfel V ran aground near Lubang Island, 80 nm to the west of where the Princess Empress went down.

Manfel V drifted onto the beach on February 26, but the crew were stranded aboard for two days as rescuers tried to reach them through heavy surf. The PCG eventually used a human chain of nearly a dozen rescuers, connected by a safety tether, to reach the stranded ship in the surf zone.