Philippines ferry disaster: ship owner sues over toxic cargo; recovery deadline set & more

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Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Several new developments have occurred surrounding the loss of Philippine ferry MV Princess of the Stars, which capsized and sank on June 21 during a severe storm. The loss near Sibuyan island during Typhoon Fengshen, known locally as Frank, killed more than 800 of those on board.

Ship owner Sulpicio Lines has sued Del Monte Philippines for failing to declare a cargo of the dangerous pesticide endosulfan that was on board. Sulpicio yesterday sued the Board of Marine Inquiry (BMO) for allegedly making comments contributing to negative publicity surrounding the line and asked a court to stop the body continuing its investigation, saying it no longer had any authority. Today, that request was denied.

Another outcome of today's proceedings is a deadline for Sulpicio to recover the ship. The company has ninety days to ensure the recovery operation is complete.

Yesterday, an eight-page complaint was filed against Del Monte at Manila City's regional trial court. It alleges that Del Monte violated the line's terms by failing to inform Sulpicio that the shipment included edosulfan. The line notes that any toxic cargo should have been declared. Suplicio is seeking PHP5.5 million from the company for alleged negligence.

"Due to Del Monte’s deceit and non-disclosure, plaintiff was led to believe that the subject shipment of Endosulfan was a regular cargo. Had defendant Del Monte disclosed the toxic nature of the cargo, plaintiff would not have loaded the same on board a passenger-cargo vessel, be it MV Princess of the Paradise or MV Princess of the Stars," said a statement by Suplicio.

The MV Princess of the Stars capsized off the coast of Romblon on June 21, 2008.

The exact total sought as damages is P549,661.11, which accounts for the correct rate for shipping if the toxic cargo had been declared, plus double rates as punitive measures. On top of those damages sought is P3 million to cover specialist recovery required for the chemical, P1 million in moral damges for lost corporate goodwill and damage to Sulpicio's reputation, P500,000 in moral damages for Sulpicio marketing vice president and shareholder Jordan L. Go, P200,000 in exemplary damages and P300,000 in legal costs.

The discovery that the ship was carrying the endosulfan shipment, which totaled 10 metric tons, led to a ban on fishing in the nearby town of San Fernando and an emergency cessation of search and rescue activities, which were mostly being conducted by divers. The pesticide is banned in many countries and is subject to various regulations in the Philippines. Water samples from the wreck site show that thus far the pesticide has not leaked.

A specialist joint team is set to arrive soon from the European Union and the United Nations Environmental Programme to assist with opearations relating to the pesticide, which is a neurotoxin.

The Philippine Coast Guard yesterday awarded some 42 staff divers and six civilian volunteer divers for their work at the Princess of the Stars. They were particularly praised for being keen to return to work. They are awaiting the results of tests for exposure to endosulfan.

Endosulfan is one of the items set for retrieval in a new deadline set by the government task force overseeing the disaster. Sulpicio must also recover the remaining bodies and the unused fuel on board within 90 days.

The MV Princess of the Stars was closest to San Fernando when it was hit by Typhoon Fengshen.

Sulpicio had initially offered to have the job done in 164 days, but Transportation Undersecretary Elena Bautista rejected this proposal, saying "Out of humanitarian reasons, I told them not to prolong the agony of the victims' relatives all the way to Christmas." Sulpicio was given until Wednesday to name the salvage contractor who would be responsible for recovering the ship, after which they were to submit their retrieval plans to the International Maritime Organisation.

Sulpicio was also given the option of simply towing the ship closer to shore to do the recovery instead of refloating it, which they have opted for. In Bautista's words: "Based on the Sulpicio report this morning, their plan now is to just tow the vessel to the shore, get the hazardous materials out, get the fuel out, and get the people out and I think that would be more cost-effective and most practical because that can be done, maybe within a month, as compared to refloating, which would probably take three months."

Sulpicio is currently considering three different potential salvors, which remain unnamed. They have been told that the company needs to have expertise suitable enough to ensure marine life is not harmed and hazardous materials are not spilled. There is a possibility that the planned towing will damage nearby coral. It is already confirmed by the coastguard that oil onboard cannot leak. Most of the 250,000 litres of bunker fuel are in the service tank, which is considered safe. Only the small amount of oil in the base tank may leak but oil spill containment booms are already in place should this occur.

The government has said that, had Sulpicio not made provisions to get the salvage done, then they would have performed the operation themselves. Had this occurred, Sulpicio would have been charged for it, with the bill estimated at P100 million.

One aspect of another legal case was resolved today. Sulpicio had questioned the authority of the BMI to conduct investigations, instead saying only the Maritime Industry Authority (MARINA) had the right to do so, and pointing to a separate inquiry started by MARINA. However, a hearing today found that the BMI and MARINA serve different roles. The BMI's role is solely to determine the cause of marine accidents. MARINA's purpose is more concerned with regulations, and is mainly investigating the role of Sulpicio themselves. "We are looking at why we should not cancel the company’s franchise," explained MARINA Administrator Vicente Suazo Jr.

Both investigations are ongoing.


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