Preying vultures

HIDDEN AGENDA - Mary Ann LL. Reyes - The Philippine Star

The digital age has made disseminating information easy and fast, but at the same time has made it dangerously unreliable at times.

While print and broadcast media used to be the only source of official news about what’s going on around us, now we have social media which has made even unverified and wrong information easy to spread, and with the whole world as its audience at that.

Narratives can change in a matter of second. One minute, you are a crusader and the next minute, you can be a fraud.

Information is power. But these days, disinformation has become equally powerful, using the right tools.

Knowing how powerful social media has become, a number of so-called environment advocates have been using it lately to change the narrative on the recent Mindoro oil spill.

No sooner had news spread that the sunken oil tanker, MT Princess Empress, was supposed to have been insured for up to P1 billion, did the narrative change on this disaster.

All of a sudden, the Department of Environment and Natural Resources’  and Philippine Coast Guard’s cleanup and containment activities are taking a backseat to a supposed clamor and outcry for those responsible to be made to pay the hundreds of thousands of victims affected, and compensate for untold damage to the marine environment.

They even want the charterer of the vessel, who under maritime laws and under our law is not responsible for such maritime accidents if the charter is a time or voyage charter or what is called a contract of affreightment under the “polluter pays” principle, made accountable for the accident.

The said principle aims to ensure that the costs of environmental control falls in the first place on the polluters, not the government or society, but making the party responsible for producing pollution responsible for paying for the damage done to the environment.

The “polluter pays” principle was first articulated in 1972 by the Council of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development and has since that time been adopted as a management mechanism and incorporated within many international environmental instruments.

Under the International Convention on Civil Liability for Bunker Oil Pollution Damage, a claim for compensation for pollution damage can be brought directly against an insurer of the shipowner, which is defined under the said convention as the registered owner, bareboat charterer (not a charterer under a contract of affreightment if I may add), manager and operator of the ship.

This convention specifically adopted the “polluter pays” principle in ensuring that compensation is available to persons who suffer damage caused by pollution resulting from the escape or discharge of oil carried in bulk at sea by ships.

It says that the shipowner at the time of the incident shall be liable for pollution damage caused by any bunker oil onboard or originating from the ship, subject to certain exceptions as when the damage is caused by an act of war, or even a natural phenomenon of an exceptional, inevitable and irresistible character.

Republic Act 9483 or the Oil Pollution Compensation Act of 2007 was enacted into law to adopt and implement the provisions of this international convention. It imposes liability for oil pollution damage on our seas upon the shipowner or the insurer, and exempts from any claims for compensation any charterer, specifically a bareboat charterer.

Some of these NGOs have been using social media, and unfortunately, even some in the print media, to continue hammering upon the shipowner, RDC Reille Maritime Services, to take full responsibility for the accident and pay for all the damages, but now even want the ship’s charterer, SL Harbor Terminal Inc., to be made liable.

Not even the international conventions adopting the “pollution pays” principle made the charterer, unless it is under a bareboat charter, liable together with the shipowner for any oil spill.

Making the bareboat charterer and not a charterer under a time or voyage charter liable is due to the fact that under maritime laws, the charterer under a bareboat charter is the owner “pro hac vice” of the chartered vessel for the time being and has full control of navigation and ship as well as its employees including the ship captain. In a contract of affreightment, which can either be a time or voyage charter, control over navigation and the crew remains with the shipowner even if the vessel is chartered.

But some of these NGOs are smelling blood and seeing the color of money especially after learning that the charterer SL Harbor is supposedly under a shipping company under the umbrella of conglomerate San Miguel Corp. Bingo! A big corporate target whose major development projects in power and infrastructure are already among their favorite targets.

Other personalities and entities who have an axe to grind on San Miguel are also using this recent oil spill as an excuse to exact their revenge on the company, which let me remind them, is spending billions of pesos of its own money to clean up Pasig and Tullahan rivers as well as other bodies of water even if they are not the polluters of these waters.

The charter agreement between SL Harbor and RDC is said to be a voyage charter, so end of story.

Instead of changing the narrative, these opportunists, if they really care for the environment and the people adversely affected by the recent oil spill, should zero in on the agencies that allowed it to happen.

A charterer has no duty to check the papers or even the condition of the vessel it is chartering because being a common carrier, MT Princess Empress is presumed to be seaworthy.

By using social media as a tool, some of these NGOs and hate groups are trying to enrage the public to inflict the maximum damage upon not only the parties to the voyage, but even San Miguel. After all, perception is key, even if it is the wrong perception.

But even if it is not liable at all, SMC has actually supported the containment efforts, and had actually fielded valuable resources such as oil spill booms and specially-trained personnel from its subsidiary Petron Corp. The company even donated for the cash-for-work program for affected families.



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