July to September 2006



Science-based management of MT Solar 1 oil spill

THE MONSTROUS oil spill caused by the sinking of MT Solar 1 over the waters off Guimaras island last August 11 raised wide national and international concerns on its immediate and long-term harm to the environment and health risks to the people. Coastal communities dependent on marginal fishing were displaced almost overnight. Tourists attracted to its many pristine beaches apparently slowed. Everything else seemed riveted to the cleanup scramble on an island famed for its world’s best-tasting mangoes.

To date , 96.6% of the 220 km coastline of Guimaras is already affected by the oil spill, with 23 out of 55 barangays’ livelihood in trouble.

The quest for quick solutions to the unprecedented marine environment crisis, as if unsurprisingly, spawned misinformation and action that may not be helpful in solving spill-related problems.

In an attempt to rein in public fears and provide options to manage the oil spill fallout, Department of Science and Technology Secretary Estrella F. Alabastro in a press conference held September 2 at the Sulo Hotel in Quezon City presented science and technology-based response to short and long-term damages. These comprise steps including clean-up interventions, oil spill impact assessment, mitigation and rehabilitation procedures, and implementation plan.

Clean-up interventions
Alabastro said that science-based response represents all the inputs of the science community, including academic institutions.

oil spill absorbents?“Bunot, not buhok” (Coconut husk, not hair) is DOST’s answer to the widespread notion that hair is the best material to control the sludge. DOST Undersecretary for Research and Development Graciano P. Yumul Jr. stressed that DOST does not recommend hair as control material because there had been no known full studies made about hair’s oil-absorbing capability. It is also impractical in terms of potential volume that may be required.

Moreover, human hair (“buhok” in Filipino) does not decompose easily. Once it goes out to marine environment, it may be difficult to retrieve. DOST recommends natural materials like coconut husk (“bunot” in Filipino) that is easier to handle and degrades faster.

Experts also recommend other natural materials such as rice straw, fowl feathers, corncobs, and corn stalks, among others to control the spill.

Romblon, a coconut-producing province that established the first coco-methyl ester plant, has started to donate coconut husks for the cleanup operations in Guimaras. Feathers are also feasible, but they need to be dried well to avoid air pollution.

GuimarasCo-combustion or the re-use of natural materials like coconut husks and rice straw is also an alternative. These materials will be collected for re-use in a cement plant in Mindanao as alternative fuel and raw materials (AFR) in cement kiln processing. Should this becomes an option, it will be monitored by DOST and Department of Environment and Natural Resources.
To guide government agencies involved in the clean-up process, DOST’s Philippine Atmospheric, Geophysical and Astronomical Services Administration will provide daily weather information, satellite images, and wave and ocean circulation models.

Inter-agency impact assessments
Oil spill impact assessments will include evaluation of air, soil, and water (ground and marine) quality and other activities in cooperation with other agencies such as the Department of Energy, Department of Agriculture, DENR, Local Government Units, and the University of the Philippines in Visayas, and UP-National Institute of Geological Sciences. DOST will lead impact assessment studies on health, marine ecosystem, onshore geology, and data repository.

DOST’s Industrial Technology Development Institute also offers bioremediation solutions, which involves the use of microorganisms, green plants or their enzymes, and fungi to restore an environment to its original condition. In case of oil spill, bioremediation entails the addition of nitrate or sulfate fertilizers to hasten the decomposition of crude oil by bacteria.

ITDI assures it has the technical capability for on-site oil bioremediation in the areas of nutrient addition, aeration, and mass production of oil-eating microbes. It has locally isolated oil-eating microbes that may be used as microbial inoculants, with Pseudomonas aeruginosa as the best strain for the purpose, ITDI said.

The ubiquitous microbe thrives in polluted and oil-contaminated water and is used worldwide to treat oil-contaminated coastal waters. ITDI isolated this strain in oil-polluted estero in Pandacan.

oil_eating_bacteriaWhen used in affected areas in Guimaras, the microbes will eat up oil blobs, eventually die naturally, and settle at the seafloor leaving no harmful effects on the ecosystem, experts said. Application of this technology will require the cooperation and assistance of Petron, LGUs, DENR, and the UP System.

ITDI also recommends the use of improvised large-scale bioreactor system for off-site bioremediation. According to ITDI, a 20 m x 50 m x 11.5 m swimming pool can treat spilt oil with a contamination extent of 50% kg/kg sorbent at 70 metric tons per batch. This bioremediation technique can be operated using ITDI grown oil-eating microbes and other microbes thriving in oil-contaminated materials.

Rehabilitation procedures
Rehabilitation plans for Guimaras involve coordination and cooperation among DOST, DENR, DA, Department of Health, Department of Energy, LGU, UP System, the Philippine Coast Guard, MARINA[?spell out], and National Mapping Resource and Inland Authority [pls check agency name again]. Rehabilitation activities would include:

Roundtable discussions will be conducted on such activities for establishing tasks and timetables. Rehabilitation programs with quantifiable results are also included in the implementation plan.

S&T in action
PAGASA’s daily updates on southwest monsoon surge and its use of operational wave models help experts estimate the extent of oil displacement.

Meanwhile, in clean-up activities, DOST is in charge of giving clearance to agencies that intend to test their technologies or processes. DENR was tasked to issue permits for environmental concerns. This step is made to deter agencies or individuals who may hamper or cause confusion in the remedial measures currently implemented.

Testing laboratories of the DOST Regional Office in Iloilo are likewise being used for analyses. Studies of other testing and analysis centers in Region 6 show that the famous Guimaras mango and groundwater fishes are unaffected by the oil spill. Crustaceans, however, are contaminated and should not be eaten.

DOST’s Philippine Council for Aquatic and Marine Fisheries Research and Development is providing technical assistance on damage assessment to affected towns and on monitoring of rehabilitation measures and recovery phases of marine ecosystems in the area. STP