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Philippines Fisherman in Philippines Philippine Oil Spill Sunset in Philippines

Rough Cut
Philippines: The Black Stain of Oil
Who's cleaning up?


Jason Margolis

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.

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Length: 11:51

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.

Philippines Map

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


The accident happened because some shippers got a little over-anxious and possibly greedy. That's a shame and a very human problem. The answer is better awareness among shippers. Don't carry more than you can haul.

Dan Simpson - Tulsa, Oklahoma
There are those rare moments of clarity when life makes you look inward and ask why. Employed by an oil and gas company I have to ask myself how we as an industry can allow this to happen. As a human with a love for the sea, clean beaches and clear water, I simply ask how can I help? Money isn't the answer, volunteerism doesn't seem to work, and the world seems to look the other way. Ideas?

Santa Fe, NM
I am surprised that I had not heard of this tragic incident before now. Thank you for presenting this. I hope it helps to speed up the distribution of funds from the Philippine government to the people who need them.

Anonymous - Cape Neddick, ME
Excellent reporting, and very fair in the way the story is presented. This is a horrible tragedy for every person and living thing. How was this not reported on like the Exxon Valdez disaster? How did I miss it?

Morgan Dela Paz - Fresno, CA
Indeed this was an environmental disaster. However, even though the solution may be impossible or longterm beyond many's expectations. The answer may literally be, under our noses. Where there is a WILL there will be a way for the people. For those who have the willingness to follow up on this crisis consider this WEBLINK Read for yourself the innovative efforts that these people are doing to help the environment.

Hi, I'm shocked to hear this news....I'm wondering whether there are any NGO's working against the destruction of this oil spillage?

Slow to release the funds, government holding onto the funds, so what is new? The people are always the ones to suffer. The oil companies continue on with their obsene profits. Accidents do happen, but you can see why no one wants a refinery in their back yard. Where is the outrage?

eva mostoufi - boston, ma
It is a terrible disaster in these people's lives. These stories are important. Everytime I am buying seafood products at the store I am guessing which foreign country has the least polluted waters. I try to buy the healthiest food for my family.

eva mostoufi - boston, ma
It is a terrible disaster in these people's lives. These stories are important. Everytime I am buying seafood products at the store I am guessing which foreign country has least polluted waters. From which country's waters to buy what is supposed to be the healthiest food for my family?

st claire, il
The Philippine political system and the administration are forever corrupt. That kind of goverment is not for the people, by the people and of the people. The country and its people are beautiful but who runs them isn't. It is not a nation of law. The citizens should make those politicians go and clean the black oil spill, especially those who got the fat envelope [a payoff or bribe] from the oil company.

rey - chicago, IL
To Duncan Miller of Santa Fe: I surmise he has never seen those "most corrupt government" lists that abound. He writes, "I hope [Frontline's presenting this story] helps to speed up the distribution of funds from the Philippine government to the people who need them." To the people who need help from Philippine politicians, I say, good luck!

Chuck Baclagon - Manila, Philippines
It has almost been a year after the Philippines' biggest oil spill, the affected communities of Guimaras are still facing a desperate and uncertain future.
Tell Petron [the Philippine oil company] to act now!

At first when I started to read this article, I was afraid of a new spill in the Philippines. This seems to be an annual occurence. But then I read that it was about last year's spill, I had a moment of relief.The Philippines is a diferent country, and the oil industry there is regulated mostly by how much is "put in the envelope." As a poor nation, the Philippines, will always have most of its problems "solved" by the envelope.I have family there, and have been there a couple of times,(the diving is great), so I have seen the envelope, and have bailed out a slightly undesireable nephew a couple of time with the envelope. The people will never see much real relief [from the oil spill], until Mother Nature finally solves the problem.

Rey Garcia - Sto Tomas, Philippines
People must recover soonest from the disaster. May the Philippine Government implement proper rules in giving permits, and refrain from negligence and graft for the sake of the poor people of Guimaras and the innocent.

Constance Penley - Santa Barbara, CA
I just finished teaching a course, "Introduction to Environmental Media," and I wish I could have shown The Black Stain of Oil as an example of highly effective video journalism that tells a story that hasn't been told at all. Next time!

connie wagner - voorhees, nj
Reporting was compassionate, without the 'in your face' 60 Minutes style. I would love to see this have greater coverage in an attempt to embarrass and call to task the oil company executives.

Very informative without being one sided. Great piece of journalism.

Duncan Miller - Santa Fe, NM
I am surprised that I had not heard of this tragic incident before now. Thank you for presenting this. I hope it helps to speed up the distribution of funds from the Philippine government to the people who need them.

David Aldridge - Chicago, Illinois
This is a terrible disaster that the oil industry has caused and for them to back out of their obligations to clean the oil spill up is criminal. The innocent lives and livelihoods that were destroyed because of this should be known and covered in our media here in America. The fact that it was only given a 24 word write up in a newspaper here is unbelievable. I feel for those who have suffered because of the oil spill and their families.