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Sunken Philippine Tanker May Have Sailed Without Required License

Officials warn that noncompliance on the casualty voyage could affect any insurance payout

shoreline cleanup at Pola
Philippine Coast Guard servicemembers clean the shoreline at Pola, Oriental Mindoro (PCG)

Published Mar 14, 2023 1:45 PM by The Maritime Executive

The small tanker that sank off Oriental Mindoro on February 28 lacked the proper paperwork to sail, according to Philippine maritime administration MARINA. 

In a hearing Tuesday, members of the Philippine Senate's environment committee criticized the shipowner and the Philippine Coast Guard for allowing the vessel Princess Empress to operate without proper permitting. The newly-built tanker was delivered in late 2022, and at the time of her loss in February, she was sailing without a required amendment to the operator's Certificate of Public Convenience (CPC), according to MARINA. Shipowner RDC Reield Marine Services held a valid CPC for its overall business, but had allegedly not submitted all of the required paperwork to secure an amendment for the new vessel. 

In testimony, RDC VP Fritzie Tee told the committee that the firm had completed the application in November; MARINA administrator Hernani Fabia countered that the application was missing needed documents - specifically financial information. A missing CPC would mean that Princess Empress could not legally sail on domestic voyages under Philippine law.

Two members of the senate committee predicted that the lack of complete paperwork for the casualty voyage could allow the vessel's insurer to deny coverage for the effects of the spill. The vessel had up to $1 billion in coverage for marine casualties, but the operator's alleged noncompliance could affect payout. "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]."

Given that any incomplete paperwork should have caused the vessel to fail a pre-voyage inspection, members of the panel excoriated the Philippine Coast Guard for allowing Princess Empress to leave the pier at all. “If you did your jobs, we would not be all here,” Sen. Raffy Tulfo told PCG officials.  

Later Tuesday, the Philippine Coast Guard released documents appearing to show that MARINA had approved the tanker's CPC permit on November 16, contrary to testimony at the hearing. 

Growing impact

An unknown amount of Princess Empress' 210,000 gallons of fuel oil has been released into the marine environment, and the contamination has spread along the length of Mindoro's eastern coastline, along with sections of the Caluya Islands. Nine communities have sustained varying levels of waterfront pollution, more than 120 people have fallen ill from petroleum fumes, thousands of fishermen are out of work, and the impact on the local tourism industry has yet to be quantified. 

RDC's ability to provide compensation on its own is not known. The firm describes itself as a small corporation, and it operates out of a modest concrete office building on the outskirts of Manila. Though the firm's internal resources may be limited, the government of Oriental Mindoro has urged RDC to donate what it can in order to support affected fishermen and citizens. "We who caused the problem, it is incumbent upon us to extend whatever assistance we can," said Oriental Mindoro Governor Bonz Dolor on Tuesday.

Spill containment and cleanup efforts continue, and the Philippine government has appealed to the United States for technical assistance. The wreck lies in about 1,200 feet of water, too deep for divers to access, and any intervention to prevent further oil releases will require ROV technology.