25 May 2010

The Pandacan Oil Depot: A Disaster Waiting to Happen

An Urgent Appeal From Advocates for Environmental and Social Justice (AESJ)

The disaster caused by the BP oil rig explosion in the Gulf of Mexico is another stark reminder that the potential threat of deadly accidents from technical failure or human error and terrorist attacks in these oil industry facilities remain a constant reality. No amount of assurances about technical safety in accord with international standards can ensure 100% security to life, the environment and the economy. At this point, one can only take measures to mitigate the deadly consequences of such accidents and attacks. Unfortunately, oil companies like Chevron, despite much advertised avowals of social responsibility, continue to ignore such precautions especially in developing countries like the Philippines.

At the heart of Manila, spanning 36 hectares, lies a ticking time bomb, the Pandacan oil depot, owned and operated by Chevron together with Shell and Petron, a locally-owned company. Containing 313 million liters of gasoline, diesel, bunker fuel, jet fuel and other highly volatile chemical substances, the giant facility, one of the largest in the world, lies amidst populated areas, sprawled along Manila’s Pasig River system that, by a short distance, reaches out to the country’s principal harbor in Manila Bay and Laguna Lake, the country’s largest inland body of water. A major explosion in the Pandacan oil depot has the potential of wreaking havoc not only in the immediate surrounding communities but also in these water systems with the communities along its banks and the transport, trade and industry that it serves.

Unfortunately, the Pandacan oil depot has no real buffer zone to speak of. Some years ago, as a reaction to protests, Shell and Petron belatedly put a farcical “buffer zone” of 8 to 15 meters, which they even cynically turned, into so-called “linear parks” for the surrounding communities’ leisure and recreation! For Chevron, the loading bay for its tankers fronts the main and busy thoroughfare of Pandacan and together with its storage tanks lie just a wall away from a church-run high school of 3000 students and a populated community.

Accidents have occurred in the past within and outside the Pandacan oil depot including explosions along its pipeline from nearby Batangas province, leaks in its storage tanks, and exploding tankers on the road. These accidents have claimed lives, injured many and destroyed substantial property. But they are as yet simply lucky close calls. In much smaller facilities in US, UK, Canada, Puerto Rico, India and elsewhere, technical failures and human error have triggered massive explosions which spread out as far as 2 to 3 kilometers away. Add to this the ongoing and very real threat of terrorist attacks. A similar blast in Pandacan could potentially the biggest disaster waiting to happen in the petrochemical industry.

Many proposals in the past to relocate the depot have mysteriously been abandoned or circumvented. The more recent, more progressive and bold ones have been Manila City Ordinance 8027 and Ordinance 8119. These city legislation gained strong and popular support, the former even having been affirmed and praised in a remarkable decision by the Philippine Supreme Court for putting primacy to right to life (of residents) over right to property (of the oil companies). The high court's decision would have allowed the gradual but definite phase and relocation of the oil depot to a safer place.

The hard-won victory of the people was however reversed immediately. City Ordinance NO. 8187 was railroaded, in the guise of a zoning ordinance, permitting the introduction into Manila of highly pollutive and extremely hazardous industries to accommodate the continued stay of the oil depot in Pandacan. Instead of protecting the environment, the safety and health of the people, the continued stay of the depot serves the interests of the oil companies.

Clearly, oil depots are never safe from technical failure, human accidents or terrorist attacks; the only safe measure that can be adopted is for the oil depot to be located in an area with a proper buffer zone from the nearest communities. 

ALTERNATIVES: An appeal for life and the environment

Phase out and relocation of the Pandacan oil depot to a safer place is the only answer. The area occupied by the depot can then be developed anew and pave the way for the establishment of commercial enterprises, service institutions like schools, clinics or a hospital, recreational and cultural facilities as well as affordable housing for the urban poor of Manila. The possibilities for development as well as new and much greater employment opportunities are varied and numerous.

To avoid disaster and to uphold life, health and the environment with these alternatives, we appeal to Chevron’s AGM to swiftly and decisively take the lead in working out a phase-by-phase plan to relocate the Pandacan oil depot to a safer area. We propose that Chevron AGM set up a special commission which will, together, with relevant US NGOs concerned with the Pandacan oil depot issue as well as with Pandacan stakeholders, undertake an investigation of the actual situation of Chevron’s facility in Pandacan and explore appropriate sites and requirements for the soonest possible relocation.

Advocates for Environmental and Social Justice (AESJ)
Manila, Philippines

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