Jason Margolis is a reporter with the public radio program, The World, where he covers a range of issues, from politics and energy to the environment. Previously, Margolis reported for KQED Public Radio in Sacramento, The Seattle Times and MarketWatch. Margolis is a San Francisco native, but now calls Boston home. He has a master's degree in journalism from the University of California at Berkeley and a bachelor's degree in history from UCLA. Of all his travels, the best place he's discovered is the Sierra Nevada Mountains in California.
The islands impacted by last year's oil spill in the Philippines are known for their breathtaking beauty: white sand beaches lined with coconut groves; fishermen standing waist deep in clear blue water flinging their nets; children standing on the shores waving to tourists.
I came to this remote area on the island of Guimaras quite by accident. As a reporter with the public radio program The World, one of my beats is to cover alternative energies, such as wind or biomass. Working for a news show that's international in scope, I'm curious about what solutions countries are adopting as the world starts to move slowly away from fossil fuels. Some work being done in the Philippines had caught my attention. Filipinos, I had learned, aren't using corn or sugarcane to power their cars; they're starting to use their local crop, the coconut.
I contacted my friend Miles Tuason, a local writer in Manila whom I had met several years ago at a journalism conference in Tokyo. He returned my email, saying he assumed I'd be covering the spill and how tragic life had become on the islands of his childhood home.
From the way he described the situation, I thought I had somehow missed a major international news story. In fact, I had no clue that in August 2006, an oil tanker chartered by Petron Corporation, the largest oil refiner in the Philippines, sank in the central Philippines, coating more than 200 miles of pristine coastline in a thick residue of bunker oil.
The area affected by the spill on Guimaras Island.
Even though I work in a newsroom and should know what's going on in the world, I feel that I had an excuse for missing this one: Nearly everyone else did. The New York Times didn't mention a word about the spill. The Los Angeles Times ran a 28-word brief about it. My own newsroom didn't report it. After all, it was a relatively small spill when compared to the 1989 Exxon Valdez disaster in Alaska. Oil spills happen all the time, all over the world. What was different this time?
To Miles and his countrymen, the Philippine oil spill -- and subsequent botched clean-up efforts -- was indeed a big deal. The Guimaras accident has been called the greatest environmental disaster in Philippine history, and it's distinct in two regards. First, the spill decimated an area where people survived for generations by fishing. Suddenly, their only source of income and one of their major food sources were gone. Second, the region around Guimaras is one of the most biodiverse marine areas in the world. It is abundant in coral reefs, fish and mangrove swamps.
Nearly a year after the disaster, clean up and compensation for the disaster has been slow. To date, the International Oil Pollution Compensation Funds has distributed almost $4 million to 22,000 residents affected by the spill. That's about $179 per person. The Philippine government has yet to release more than two-thirds of the rehabilitation funds for the affected areas. Meanwhile, locals continue their own efforts to remove the toxic sludge from their homes and beaches and hope that the fish and the tourists will soon return.
-- Jason Margolis