Extended Waterfront Development Needed: Part IV

Commo. Carlos L. Agustin AFP (ret)In a third issue I outlined three more issues that have not been addressed from a macro viewpoint: The Manila Bay-Cavite Wetlands, Pollution, solid waste and sewage control, and Solving the solid waste dilemma: the Tokyo Bay and other models.

I now wish to address a project that I might con- sider close to my heart, having been the General Manager of the Philippine Ports Authority from December, 1993 to July, 1998. This was actually included in the original 25-year master plan that we initiated and was approved by then President Fidel V Ramos.

South Harbor Bulk Oil Terminal

I was reminded about this project when Herminio Esguerra, Chair of the Herma Group of Companies (which includes Herma Shipping, Herma Shipyard, Petrotrade, Cleanway Technology, Herma Farms, Herma Corporation, RHEAM Strategic Technologies and Makisig Network) told me about his renewed interest in relocating the oil terminals away from Pandacan to Manila Bay.

In 1991, the Philippine Coast Guard convened an inter-agency meeting at the PCG Headquarters at South Harbor to inform the oil companies about the need to transfer out of Pandacan in view of safety concerns. It was during that meeting that I first met a young lawyer by the name of Renato Corona, who was then working with the Presidential Legal Staff and who has gone a long way since, being now the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. I surmise that his background knowledge originating from that meeting gave him sufficient insight in the recent Supreme Court decision affirming the City of Manila’s actions related to the Pandacan terminal’s case,

I made a suggestion that an area near the mouth of the Pasig River may be reclaimed for this purpose. Thereafter, when I became PPA General Manager I included such a project in the 25-year Master Plan, which then President Fidel V Ramos approved in 1994.

The Pandacan oil depot issue

The oil companies opposed the relocation move, as they had been opposing even before the 1991 meeting I mentioned. Their reasons were particularly highlighted by my good friend, columnist Peter Wallace, who discussed it thoroughly in his column in the 15 May 2009 issue of Manila Standard Today.

I disagreed with a few points brought out by Peter Wallace, whose piece nevertheless was an eye opener on an environmental and safety issue we have been trying to deal with for many years.

Quoting from an investigation on a disaster that happened in the UK in Dec 2005,

“…risk assessment requires difficult judgments based on formulating assumptions, estimating probabilities of infrequent events and incorporating the uncertainty surrounding these. Underestimating the likelihood of major events may lead to unacceptable levels of risk to those in the vicinity of a major hazard site, while overestimating it may lead to unnecessary blighting of otherwise economically viable land. Risk assessments have to be conducted to a high standard to be credible to planning authorities…”

Cardinal Rosales echoed the same sentiment when he said on May 26, 2009: “I understand the dire economic implications that the removal of the Pandacan depot could cause, but the safety of the people around the depot is a primordial consideration.”

The site under consideration in the aforesaid UK investigation had the accident in spite of having a much lesser degree of hazard risk (trust me) in comparison to Pandacan.

This issue of relocation of the Pandacan depot has been there for a few decades, obviously for safety reasons. What seems clear is that the City of Manila had failed to properly zone the area, particularly after World War II such that it had become mixed use, and that residences have been allowed to proliferate within a dangerous radius from the terminal.

The Manila City Engineers of years past obviously did not seriously consider environmental safety issues – or kept blind to standards long set internationally.

The City wanted them out, but backed off for some reason, I believe with acquiescence of Malacañang. However during the ‘70s and early ‘80s we feared of threats against Malacañang and thus transformed what we called Task Force Pasig to Coast Guard Station Pasig to strengthen its capability together with the PSC (now PSG) to help screen possible saboteurs that might target the Palace and the depot.

Reacting to similar concerns, I thus met with the oil companies at Coast Guard HQ in 1991. All of them were represented, together with representatives of City Hall, the AFP HQ, the PN, DENR, the PC (soon to be PNP) and others. I learned a few things about the past but what the oil companies wanted was time.

As PPA General Manager later I again convened another meeting (I think in 1994) after the matter was raised by some sectors and even offered to make available the reclaimable part of the tip of Engineering Island. They said they could not afford to do that as they were uncertain of its viability and other reasons I could not fathom. I asked how much time they needed and we were told 15 to 20 years. Those of course were not under oath and presumably were not official statements of their boards but nevertheless given by their representatives. I do not know if the minutes are still on file.

On the current effort to appease the residents and the archdiocese, the companies reportedly promised to hold meetings and dialogues with communities, and assure them of the implementation of a further advanced management system with respect to safety and security, per a GMA news item.

This is apparently the Filipino way of dealing with problems. But the reality is that an accident can happen, and a terrorist incident or some other unexpected crazy situation likewise can cause tremendous loss and damage to life and property. 

I even suspect that, if relocation of the Pandacan Depot is to be made finally realized, there will be a wonderful situation where everybody wins, since the real estate is prime as I can easily surmise, as I did state to the players in 1994, that the Depot is indeed sitting on a real estate gold mine.

In 1995 Esguerra made a proposal to reclaim seaward of Engineering Island which he presented to the PPA, and which in fact we encouraged him to pursue but unfortunately his consultant, a former World Bank official, died and he was unable to complete the plan.

Lately Esguerra completed a new proposal, and the oil companies have expressed interest in relocating to the planned reclamation site at the South Harbor area. He has submitted this proposal to both the PPA and the Philippine Reclamation Authority (PRA). “All safety and environmental concerns will be considered, and no other facility that is not concerned with oil distribution will be included in order to comply with world class terminal standards”, are according to Esguerra.

He justifies it by stating that

“The present predicament of the Pandacan oil depots is like a paradox: on the one hand, it is the vital fuels storage/supply point for the National Capital Region and therefore a critical component of the national economy; but at the same time, it is the object of protests from various sectors: the Manila City government, Pandacan residents, environmentalists, religious groups, cause-oriented groups, NGOs, civil society, and other interest groups who have clamored for the removal of the depots from their present sites.

“ The absence of a clear-cut plan that would address both the petroleum fuels demand of the metropolis and the environmental, safety, and security issues raised by the oppositions has created a persistent issue that remains unresolved to date, and continues to challenge national leaders to come up with a lasting solution that is acceptable to all affected parties.

“The Herma Group believes that it now has the solution that will address all the concerns of the various stakeholders mentioned above.

Esguerra further describes the Manila Bay Island Oil Terminal Project (MBIOT) as” a full-complement, state-of-the-art oil terminal constructed on a 50-hectare reclaimed offshore island in Manila Bay. It will host petroleum products, liquefied petroleum gas (LPG), biofuels-ethanol, base stocks/base oils, and possibly petrochemicals.”

Salient features of the MBIOT include the following:

  • It will replicate, or even exceed, the capabilities of the Pandacan oil depots to supply petroleum products to Metro Manila and adjoining provinces.
  • It will be fully funded and financed by the proponents (local and foreign investors) and thus will not require any capital outlay on the part of government or the oil companies.
  • The offshore island (on which the terminal will be built) will be a purely industrial estate separated from the mainland by a 150-200 meter open channel.
  • Construction of the new Terminal will not cause any disruption in fuels supply as it will be built independent of the operations or phase down of the present Pandacan oil depots.
  • More efficient transport (lower freight costs) of petroleum products to Metro Manila.
  • Improved environment, safety, and security situation vs. that which is currently experienced in Pandacan.

As far as I know, there are at least three other proposals that could address this bulk terminal need. One is an expansion at the North Harbor; another is one other island reclamation by DM Wenceslao, Inc., and another proposal by FF Cruz Inc.

I have not seen the merits of these other proposals but having seen the one offered by Herma Group and knowing the track record of its owner, and the amount of time he has dedicated to this effort, I hope that the PPA, the PRA and the DOE would give due course to this project proposal.