Philippine Prosecutors Indict Owners of Lost Tanker Princess Empress

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Executives from the operator of the lost tanker Princess Empress have been indicted on criminal charges in connection with the vessel’s sinking last year. The vessel went down off Naujan, Oriental Mindoro in February 2023, causing a massive spill that stretched along the length of the island’s eastern shore. 

The Philipppines’ National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) claims that the tanker was not a newbuild, as shipowner RDC Reield Marine maintains, but rather a rebuilt vessel constructed from the remains of a scrapped ship.

Last year, the NBI accused the firm’s executives of falsifying records related to the vessel’s operating license. RDC denies these allegations, but its licenses have been pulled and it has been forced by the nation’s maritime regulator to cease all vessel operations. 

“RDC Reield directors are presumed to be authors of the falsified document as they were in possession of the same and made use of the document. They also benefited from the use of the falsified document,” Philippine Justice Department spokesman Mico Clavano told reporters at the time.

On Wednesday, state prosecutors said that they agreed with the NBI and plan to file charges against RDC executives for alleged falsification of public documents. However, the prosecutors declined to pursue NBI’s recommendation to charge 19 employees of the Philippine Coast Guard and one employee of maritime regulator MARINA. NBI contended that a small number of MARINA officials colluded with RDC to falsify the ship’s operating documents, and that the PCG failed to properly check the documents for validity before the vessel departed on the accident voyage.

The small product tanker Princess Empress went down off Pola, Oriental Mindoro on February 28 with a cargo of 900,000 liters of fuel oil. The crew were rescued safely by a good samaritan vessel, but petroleum began to leak out of the wreck’s cargo tanks. Fuel oil came ashore on beaches and reefs from Calapan and Verde Island in the northwest to the Caluya Islands in the south. An estimated 175,000 people were affected, including thousands of fishermen put out of work by a fishing ban.

The Philippine Coast Guard organized a massive cleanup on shore and on the water, and salvors mobilized to remove the last of the oil from the Princess Empress’ tanks. The spill response effort wrapped up last year, but the environmental effects are expected to linger for a long time to come.  

“We are determined to make sure that people do not forget that what happened was a crime and not an accident. It was a crime,”  Justice Secretary Jesus Crispin Remulla said last year. 

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