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An oil spill off the Philippine coast has coated some of the world’s most beautiful beaches in sludge: ‘Our white sand is now black’

Coast guard members clean up an oil slick on March 8 in Pola, Oriental Mindoro.Coast guard members clean up an oil slick on March 8 in Pola, Oriental Mindoro.

Ezra Acayan/Getty Images

  • On February 28, a tanker carrying more than 200,000 gallons of oil sank in the Philippines.
  • Since then it has been steadily leaking oil into the sea, killing wildlife and impacting the lives of locals.
  • In 2006, another tanker leaked about 109,000 gallons of oil off the Philippine coast in the worst spill in the country’s history to date.

Two weeks ago, an oil tanker known as the MT Princess Empress sank off the coast of the Philippines. It was carrying more than 200,000 gallons of oil.

Since then, oil has steadily leaked out into the sea, blackening shorelines, killing wildlife, and impacting locals’ ability to fish, swim, and live. The spill has now reached Palawan, one of the world’s top beach destinations — and it shows no sign of slowing down. 

Oil spills are notoriously difficult to clean up, and the technology to do so hasn’t developed much since the 1960s. 

Here’s what’s happened so far and why it’s so hard to stop.

On February 28, an oil tanker called the MT Princess Empress encountered engine problems while traveling through rough seas. It ended up sinking off the coast of Oriental Mindoro, an island in the Philippines.A boat is seen off the coast of Oriental Mindoro in 2016.Oriental Mindoro seen from the water in 2016 before the oil spill.

Cristian Umili/VWPics/Universal Images Group/Getty Images

Sources: Reuters, The Guardian

The tanker, which didn’t have a permit, was carrying about 211,338 gallons of industrial oil. It’s now about 1,200 feet below the ocean surface leaking oil. Experts estimate 1,000 barrels of oil are leaking out every day.An aerial shot of the oil slick and Pola, Oriental Mindoro on March 8.An aerial shot of the oil slick off the coast of Pola, Oriental Mindoro, on March 8.

Ezra Acayan/Getty Images

Sources: Reuters, Manila Standard

The spill has already hurt Oriental Mindoro, an island known for its resorts, beautiful beaches, and coral reefs.A traditional fishing boat is moored off shore during a sunset in the Philippines.A traditional fishing boat is moored off shore during a sunset in the Philippines.

Stefan Irvine/LightRocket via Getty Images

Source: Washington Post

The usually clear blue water that surrounds the island has turned black.An aerial shot of the oil slick on the coast near Pola, Oriental Mindoro on March 8.An aerial shot of the oil slick near Pola, Oriental Mindoro on March 8.

Ezra Acayan/Getty Images

The shoreline has been coated in thick sludge. According to locals, even when the shoreline is cleaned, it becomes dirty again when the tide rises and brings in new oil.A resident walks along a shore covered in oil slick on March 8 in Pola, Oriental Mindoro.A resident walks along a shore covered in oil slick on March 8 in Pola, Oriental Mindoro.

Ezra Acayan/Getty Images

Source: Reuters

Oil is toxic. It kills coral and poisons other sea life, including coating birds’ wings so they can’t fly. Overall, it has devastating effects on ecosystems and the food chain.Coast guards wearing face coverings clean up an oil slick on March 8 in Pola, Oriental Mindoro.Coast guards clean up an oil slick on March 8 in Pola, Oriental Mindoro.

Ezra Acayan/Getty Images

Sources: BBC, NOAA

Oil spills are also notoriously difficult to stop. The clean-up has to take into account the oil’s rapid spread, as well as tides and winds regularly changing direction.An aerial view shows the oil spill on the shores of Pola in Oriental Mindoro on March 8.An aerial view shows the oil spill on the shores of Pola in Oriental Mindoro on March 8.

Eloisa Lopez/Reuters

According to Canadian journalist Andrew Nikiforuk, who spent more than 30 years reporting on the impact of fossil fuels, cleaning up oil spills is like operating on an older patient who has cancer. 

“Scientists — outside the oil industry — call it ‘prime-time theatre’ or response theatre,” he wrote for Hakai Magazine. 

The reality is big spills aren’t easily contained, and the technology used for clean-ups hasn’t really improved since the 1960s, he wrote. 

Sources: Inquirer.Net, Hakai Magazine

For comparison, the clean-up of the Exxon Valdez spill in 1989 — which was carrying 53 million gallons of oil — had $2 billion worth of funding and enlisted 10,000 workers. Only 7% of the spilled oil was recovered.Crude oil from the tanker Exxon Valdez swirls on the surface of Alaska's Prince William Sound near Naked Island in 1989.Crude oil from the tanker Exxon Valdez swirls on the surface of Alaska’s Prince William Sound near Naked Island in 1989.

John Gaps III/AP

According to Nikiforuk, Transport Canada stated that the maximum that’s usually recovered from an open oil spill is 15% of the oil. 

Sources: New Republic, Hakai Magazine

The spill in the Philippines has already spread widely, making it difficult to stop. According to Greenpeace Philippines, by March 8, the spill had covered an area as large as 1,000 football fields.A boom is deployed by the coast guard to contain the oil spill in Pola, Oriental Mindoro on March 8.A boom is deployed by the coast guard to contain the oil spill in Pola, Oriental Mindoro on March 8.

Ezra Acayan/Getty Images

Sources: Bloomberg, Manila Standard

The spill has also leaked into mangrove areas, further complicating the clean-up.Mangroves shown covered in oil from the oil spill in Pola, Oriental Mindoro on March 8.Mangroves shown covered in oil from the oil spill in Pola, Oriental Mindoro on March 8.

Ezra Acayan/Getty Images

Source: Bloomberg

The clean-up was also slowed down by the fact workers were only allowed to work four-hour days to stop themselves from getting sick from oil exposure.A volunteer holds oil sludge as they collect debris covered in oil from the shore of Pola on March 7.A volunteer collects debris covered in oil from the shore of Pola on March 7.

Eloisa Lopez/Reuters

Source: Bloomberg

One of the hardest hit areas is a town called Pola, located on the coast of Oriental Mindoro. Mayor Jennifer Cruz told local Philippines network GMA that “you can see the oil spill in the waves. Fish were dying. Our white sand is now black sand.”An aerial shot of the oil slick on the coast of Pola, Oriental Mindoro, on March 8.An aerial shot of the oil slick on the coast of Pola, Oriental Mindoro, on March 8.

Ezra Acayan/Getty Images

She told CNN Philippines that after nine days, it had only gotten worse. 

“The stench from the oil is getting stronger, and the weather is also getting hotter,” she said.

Sources: The Guardian, Washington Post

A state of calamity was imposed on more than 70 villages on Oriental Mindoro.An aerial shot of the oil slick on the shores of Pola, Oriental Mindoro, on March 8.An aerial shot of the oil slick on the shores of Pola, Oriental Mindoro, on March 8.

Ezra Acayan/Getty Images

Sources: Time, Inquirer.Net

Experts estimate the oil spill has hurt the livelihoods of 13,600 people who fish for a living, and another 120,000 residents.A fish vendors leans on a table lined with fish waiting for customers at a wet market on March 8 in Pola, Oriental Mindoro.Fish vendors affected by the oil spill wait for customers at a wet market on March 8 in Pola, Oriental Mindoro.

Ezra Acayan/Getty Images

Sources: Time, Inquirer.Net

Residents have also been reacting physically to the sludge. More than a hundred people have reported symptoms, including dizziness, vomiting, and cramps.An aerial shot of the oil slick near the shore of Pola, Oriental Mindoro on March 8.An aerial shot of the oil slick near the shore of Pola, Oriental Mindoro on March 8.

Ezra Acayan/Getty Images

Sources: BBC, Bloomberg

The Philippines government and local residents are doing what they can to contain the spill. The coast guard has deployed booms, which are floating barriers to help stop the oil from spreading.Sacks containing oil slick pile up in Pola, Oriental Mindoro, on March 8.Sacks containing oil slick pile up in Pola, Oriental Mindoro, on March 8.

Ezra Acayan/Getty Images

But at a Senate committee meeting, Oriental Mindoro Gov. Humerlito Dolor said the booms were not enough because they were too short to be effective. 

They were only 985 feet long when the spill was almost 35 miles long. 

He said “the truth is the problem is becoming huge, bigger and bigger every day.”

Source: Inquirer.Net

Locals have been collecting bottles, old clothes, and even hair from barbershops to soak up the oil. Hair is an adsorbent material, meaning it gets coated by oil, and unlike sponge or cotton, it doesn’t swell up.The coast guard deploys a boom to contain the oil spill on March 8, 2023, in Pola, Oriental Mindoro.The coast guard deploys a boom to contain the oil spill on March 8, 2023 in Pola, Oriental Mindoro.

Ezra Acayan/Getty Images

Source: Time

But booms and hair can only do so much and resources are an issue. At times, locals have been forced to use rice sacks to bag oil slick because there’s not much else.Volunteers clean up the oil spill on the shore of Pola, Oriental Mindoro, on March 7.Volunteers clean up the oil spill on the shore of Pola, Oriental Mindoro, on March 7.

Eloisa Lopez/Reuters

Source: CNN Philippines

By March 10, the spill had reached the northeastern edge of Palawan, a series of islands known for their world famous beaches and dubbed by UNESCO as the Philippines’ “last ecological frontier.”A view of Sabang Beach with a small structure in the background next to some greenery, as seen in 2016.A view of Sabang Beach, located on Palawan.

John S. Lander/LightRocket/Getty Images

Sources: CNN Philippines, Time

Locals fear El Nido, a popular tourist destination known for its coral reef diving, will be next and have been preparing as best they can.Boats are scattered across the water as a person points to something to in the distance in El Nido, Philippines.A view of the town of El Nido, Philippines, in 2019.

Jes Aznar/Getty Images

Source: Bloomberg

Marine scientists at the University of the Philippines are warning the oil spill could also reach the Verde Island Passage, one of the world’s most diverse marine areas — home to manta rays, hawksbill turtles, and whale sharks.A coast guard collects water samples from an oil spill in the waters off Naujan, Oriental Mindoro, on March 2.A coast guard collects water samples from an oil spill in the waters off Naujan, Oriental Mindoro, on March 2.

Philippine Coast Guard/AP

While the Philippine Marine Science Institute has estimated 36,000 hectares of mangroves and coral reefs could be hurt by the spill.

Sources: Reuters, Straits Times, Washington Post

The Japanese government has pledged to help with the clean-up, but there’s no quick solution. The Philippines government has estimated it will take at least three months to clean up the waters.Philippine Coast Guard Vice Admiral Ronnie Gavan speaks next to Nihei Daisuke, Minister of economic affairs from the Japanese embassy; Ono Taro, deputy leader of the Japan Disaster Relief expert team; and Goto Daisuke, Japanese Coast Guard chief oil prevention and removal advisor, during a press conference at the coast guard's headquarters in Manila on March 10, 2023.Filipino and Japanese officials address the oil spill during a press conference at the coast guard’s headquarters in Manila on March 10, 2023.

Ted Aljibe/AFP/Getty Images

Sources: Bloomberg, CNN Philippines

The Philippines has dealt with oil spills before. In 2006, a tanker sank off the coast of another island called Guimaras and spilled about 109,000 gallons of oil into the ocean. It was the worst spill in the country’s history.A young girl looks at the coast of Nueva Valencia in Guimaras island blackened by oil spill in August 2006.A young girl looks at the coast of Nueva Valencia in Guimaras island blackened by oil spill in August 2006.

Tara Yap/AFP/Getty Images

Source: Manila Standard

But, according to Greenpeace Philippines, this spill could end up being the worst the country has ever faced.An aerial shot of the oil slick near the shore of Pola, Oriental Mindoro on March 8.An aerial shot of the oil slick near the shore of Pola, Oriental Mindoro on March 8.

Ezra Acayan/Getty Images

Source: Manila Standard

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