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International team to help tackle toxic ferry wreck

A coast guard team deploys an oil containment boom around the doomed Princess of the Stars ferry which sank off the coast of Sibuyan island in the central Philippines on 21 June.
(Jason Gutierrez/IRIN)

With more storms forecast over the next few months, the Philippine authorities have brought in international help to fast-track the salvaging of a ferry that sank off the central island of Sibuyan amid mounting fears its cargo of toxic pesticides could contaminate the area.

Philippine Health Secretary Francisco Duque, a member of a specialised inter-agency task force working to retrieve the MV Princess of Stars, said Manila had sought the help of a special European Union (EU)-UN technical team to conduct an “assessment” of the shipwreck and determine how salvage crews could safely retrieve 10 metric tonnes of endosulfan - a highly toxic pesticide harmful or even lethal to humans - from its cargo hold.

Officials said there were other unknown quantities of chemicals in the ship, as well as over 10,000 litres of bunker fuel that was also in danger of seeping out.

“They will do assessments of the area,” Duque told reporters in Manila. “They will also help out in our fish advisories, and to make recommendations as to what proper steps could be taken in terms of the water, fish, sediments and coral reefs that might be affected by the endosulfan and the toxic pesticides there,” he said.

The task force would directly work with the team, which will be based on Sibuyan, a remote central Philippine island that was heavily damaged by Typhoon Fengshen, he said.

Disaster strikes on 21 June

The Princess of the Stars sailed right into the eye of the typhoon on 21 June, after its captain apparently ignored warnings from the coast guard and weather forecasters not to set sail.

After being pummelled by huge waves, it listed on its side and quickly capsized. Of its more than 800 passengers, only 57 survivors were found.

Almost three weeks on, just 100 decomposing bodies have so far been recovered, with hundreds more trapped under the ferry, whose bow juts out from the sea about a kilometre from Sibuyan's shore.

Earlier this month, ferry operators and the government abandoned efforts to bore a hole through the vessel to extract corpses and containers that hold the chemicals, due to the health threat it posed to divers.

Daily tests on water samples taken from the area have proved inconclusive for any contamination. However, marine biologists and officials warn that another storm could possibly dislodge the wreck from its site and lead to leakage.


Photo: Jason Gutierrez/IRIN
Catholic priests hold a memorial service on the shores of Sibuyan island for the victims of a sunken ferry laden with a toxic cargo (background)

More typhoons predicted

Earlier this year, the government's state weather bureau predicted that 19-20 storms could hit the Philippines this year from the Pacific Ocean.

The annual typhoons cause deaths and massive destruction, and the government has been receiving help form UN agencies and other relief organisations in terms of disaster preparedness and disease mitigation.

Health Secretary Duque said the three-member EU-UN team - a marine chemist, an eco-toxicologist and a civil protection expert - would spend a week in the Philippines to assess the situation, determine priority needs, and identify any aid gaps.

On 10 July, a statement issued by the EU and UN in Geneva said the mission was being carried out at the request of the Philippines government.

“We must ensure that the human tragedy of this ferry collapse is not compounded by the leakage of these pesticides,” said Stavros Dimas, commissioner for the EU's Environment and Civil Protection organisation.

Threat to livelihoods

“If not handled properly, this could be a disaster upon a disaster,” said Vladimir Sakharov, head of a joint environment unit for the UN Environment Programme and the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.

“Leakage of the ferry's toxic cargo would cause major ecological damage and thereby have a terrible impact on the livelihoods of people living in the region,” Sakharov warned.

Relatives of those who perished in the tragedy meanwhile were assured by the government that foreign forensics experts would help speed up identification of the bodies.

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This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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