DOJ: Case buildup underway vs. owner of sunken tanker

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Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, March 16) — The Department of Justice (DOJ) said a case buildup is underway against RDC Reield Marine Services, the owner of MT Princess Empress, which caused an oil spill that affected many coastal towns in Oriental Mindoro.

Citing new findings, Justice Secretary Jesus Crispin Remulla told reporters on Thursday that the sunken tanker was a "rebuilt scrap ship," adding that there has been "misrepresentation" ever since the incident.

"Hinahanda, alam mo 'yan, tawag namin diyan case buildup [We're preparing, we call it a case buildup]. We are sorting out all the evidence so that we can file the proper complaint, we can collate all the data necessary to build a case," Remulla explained.

"There is a possible case, there are possible cases to be filed. Ide-define ito ng legal office ng [This will be defined by the legal office of the] DOJ through Undersecretary (Raul) Vasquez," he added.

Remulla said the department is still gathering all affidavits and sworn statements and is eyeing to finish the case buildup by Tuesday next week.

'We have an affidavit'

The DOJ chief said they already have an affidavit from a person knowledgeable about the events and circumstances surrounding the ship.

Remulla said MT Princess Empress was already considered scrap. It was rebuilt to be a liquefied petroleum gas carrier, and then reworked to be a motor tanker.

"And we're looking at the angle of insurance also kasi parang may insurance siyang napakalaki [because it looks like it was insured for a big amount]," Remulla said. Maritime Industry Authority (Marina) said the vessel was covered by a $1-billion liability insurance.

Authorities are also looking at other liabilities, including environmental damage, health risks, and damage to biodiversity. Remulla said initial findings will be validated through a planned visit to Pola town, the community which bore the brunt of the spillage.

During their first meeting on Saturday, Remulla said RDC told the DOJ and the Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) that the ship was two years old — practically "brand new" by the country's standards.

The justice secretary, however, said he believed the vessel was probably 50 years old.

"'Yung sinabi sa coast guard na bagong bago 'yung barko, parang may intent to deceive na sa simula't sapul pa lang. Kaya dapat tingnan natin itong bagay na ito," Remulla noted.

[Translation: When they told the coast guard that the ship was new, it seemed there was intent to deceive from the very start. That's why we should look into this matter.]

Authorities also found out about previous incidents when the ship almost capsized, a matter being seriously looked into by the DOJ by studying records from concerned agencies.

Remulla also said MT Princess Empress did not follow gale warnings that were already issued since the eve of the incident.

"Feb. 27 pa lang, meron ng gale warnings. Feb. 28, madaling araw sinabihan na sila, maano ang karagatan, medyo mahirap daanan pero hindi rin pinansin, tumuloy pa rin sila, at para bang noong nag-maneuver noong bandang huli ay too late na at doon na lang talaga, aksidente talaga ang mangyayari," he said.

[Translation: There were gale warnings already on Feb. 27. At dawn on Feb. 28, they were told that it was already difficult to traverse the waters but they still went out. And when they finally maneuvered, it was already too late and the incident happened.]

MT Princess Empress was transporting 800,000 liters of industrial oil from Bataan to Iloilo when it drifted towards Balingawan Point near Naujan town because of rough seas.

It capsized due to engine trouble, completely sank, and then spilled its cargo. The oil slick has reached the shores of Palawan and Antique, which authorities are rushing to contain.

More resolutions vs. oil spill

Makabayan bloc lawmakers were the latest to file a resolution urging the House of Representatives to immediately investigate the effects of the oil spill.

Around 78 coastal barangays from nine Oriental Mindoro towns have declared a state of calamity. Data from the Office of Civil Defense showed over 145,000 residents have so far been affected by the oil slick and around 175 people have fallen ill.

Pola town Mayor Jennifer Cruz is now requesting RDC to provide a complete plan to help affected communities recover from the incident, whose effects, she believes, may be felt for at least three years. 

Thousands of fisherfolk in Mimaropa are feeling the impact of the oil spill, with more than 36,000 hectares of marine habitats at risk.

When asked for comment on the oil spill, RDC told CNN Philippines: "We cannot comment on this as we complied. We recommend that this should be directed to Marina and PCG. We complied and also cooperating with the investigation."

During the Senate hearing on Tuesday, Marina said the oil tanker had no permit to operate, as RDC's application to amend its Certificate of Public Convenience (CPC) was still pending. 

The ship owner insisted it has completed the necessary requirements, while the PCG denied it allowed the tanker to operate despite lacking a permit. 

CNN Philippines senior correspondent Anjo Alimario and digital producer Jelo Ritzhie Mantaring contributed to this report.