Saturday, September 6, 2008

Too Much To Bear

The fighting in Mindanao, the debate over the bungled Bangsamoro Juridical Entity, and yes, the highest inflation rate in 14 years of 12.5% are hugging the headlines, along with the extended presence of ‘visiting’ American troops in Zamboanga.

So it is understandable that the tragic sinking of MV Princess of the Stars nearly three months ago is not on the top of our minds of late.

But there is movement on the ground with salvage work on the ship wreck due to commence in several weeks at a cost of some P350-M to the owner, Sulpicio Lines. The Cebu-based shipping firm has recently reported that it has extended berreavement and other financial aid to more than 500 or is it 600 families of the dead and missing, many of whose remains are still entombed inside MV Princess of the Stars, once the lead vessel in Sulpicio’s fleet of inter-island passenger and cargo vessels.

It’s previously been reported that Sulpicio ships carry up to 40% of the commercial cargo ( including motor vehicles) to and from the Visayas, and Mindanao, making it a truly vital cog in the supply chain, as businessman call it.

The government has been trying to project acute awareness of this reality, attempting to balance the still highly emotional issue of the recent tragedy with the economic imperatives.

It is no surprise then that a key lieutenant of President Arroyo, her former Assumption schoolmate Elena Bautista, already undersecretary for maritime affairs, has just taken over the helm of the Maritime Industry Authority.

The MARINA, in turn has laid down a strict time-bound schedule for Sulpicio Lines to comply with stringent maritime safty standards, including retraining of its sea-going personnel, and upgraded insurance coverage.

To be fair, Sulpicio Lines appears to have shed its earlier bad handling of the crisis which including claiming the incident “was an act of God” and its seeming all-out ’sue everyone” legal tactic.

Government itself is not blameless in the affair with the negligence of key agencies in both the micro and macro sense (the inadequate seaworthiness certifications, the ‘white elephant’ maritime emergency communications system, and PAGASA’s failure to procure properly-budgeted weather tracking nd forecasting systems).

There is also the matter of the ticking environmental time bomb, given Del Monte Philippines’ highly toxic cargo of the Israeli-manufactured endosulfan pesticide which, if it leaks together with some 200,000 liter of bunker fuel still in the overturned ship, could wreak untold harm to the rich fishing waters of the Visayas.

But still, public perception, and blame-selection remains decidedly against Sulpicio even as the firm itself is reportedly struggling to literally stay afloat, operationally and financially.

Its competitors are even suspect of adding fuel to the fire by nudging negatively-slanted news and opinion reportage.

The Department of Justice’s Public Attorney’s Office (PAO) has also been ‘eager’ to stay in the news, prodding victims’ relatives to pursue damage, and criminal cases against SLI.

This writer has confirmed that the legally-required conduct of indigency certification tests for all litigants getting pro bono PAO legal aid has been waived.

Both houses of Congress are also not done yet with their inquiries “in aid of legislation” and there is, of course, a pending Board of Marine Inquiry recommendation for Sulpicio’s franchise, its Certificate of Public Convenience (CPC) to be revoked.

So given these very dire circumstances, what does lie ahead for Sulpicio Lines?

It almost seems too much to bear that last Thursday, Sulpicio’s MV Cotabato Princess rammed the Iloilo pier after reportedly being pished by heavy currents.