An explosion in Pandacan, Manila, the busy capital of the Philippines,
could arguably turn into the world's biggest petrochemical disaster. Pandacan
is one of the most densely populated districts in Manila. Its boundaries
contain the historic yet polluted Pasig River, other historical sites,
and, as of last count, 83,998 residents of diverse economic backgrounds.
However, many of the area's residents are living in poverty and occupy
tiny houses that are built close to one another. Hundreds or even thousands
of homes, especially those of the poor, are dangerously close to the Pandacan
Petrochemical Depots which harbor tanks containing 330.5 million litres
of gasoline, aviation fuel, crude-oil, bunker oil, diesel, and possibly
other flammeable and potentially toxic substances.
The Presidential Palace,
Malacanang, is only two kilometers away from the depot. Schools, daycares,
churches, restaurants, and streetside barbecue vendors proliferate the
area as well.
Even the ordinary
observer can see that the risk posed if a fire or terrorist attack occurs
is enormous. The United Firefighters of the Philippines and an international
expert on disaster management estimate that the explosion of the Pandacan
oil depot would result in devastation within a 2-kilometer radius. Aidan
Tasker Lynch, disaster management expert and Executive Director of the
Philippine Society of Emergency Medical Technicians, contrasts the Pandacan
situation to the PEMEX explosion north of Mexico City in 1984. The explosion
caused 600 deaths, 7,000 injuries, and damge or destruction to thousands
of homes. The area had to be evacuated of tens of thousands if not hundreds
of thousands of people.
However, in Mexico,
nobody lived closer than 140 meters to the LPG depot. In Pandacan, the
dwellings run right up to the depot walls, with the most densely populated
being the closest. The depots, run by Pilipinas Shell Petroleum Corporation,
Caltex Philippines (owned byTexaco which merged with Chevron in 2001),
Mobil, Petron Corporation, and Unioil, sit on over 30 hectares of land.
Because the depots
sit right on the bank of the Pasig River (which flows directly through
the heart of Manila), it is feared that fire could also travel through
spillage onto the river and spread to other parts of the city. What makes
the situation worse, according to Alvin Estrada, spokesperson for the
United Firefighters of the Philippines, is that Manila's fleet of barely
adequately equipped fire trucks is limited to only 6 antiquated vehicles
and there is very little in the way of Emergency Medical Services. It
is greatly feared that an explosion or fire involving these depots could
arguably lead to be the world's biggest petrochemical disaster. In addition,
on a day-to-day basis it appears that toxic pollution could be the cause
of many illnesses, including serious ones, that Pandacan residents suffer
Depots were built in 1910 in Pandacan because of the area's proximity
both to roads and to the river. The Martija family and Lucera Castillejos
and Maria Wilma Barrias, who tell their stories in this report, have lived
next to the depots since the late 1960s and early 1970s. When they moved
to Pandacan, it was not densely populated but it has since filled up with
numerous residents, including the workers of the oil companies that run
the depots. These families cannot move back to the provinces they came
from where it might be cheaper and cleaner because they are poor and their
livelihood is in the city. They suffer from asthma, anemia, tuberculosis,
primary complex (tuberculosis in babies), skin diseases, ulcers, broncho-pneumonia,
colds, coughing, and other ailments. According to Tasker-Lynch, residents
have also mentioned that many people in Pandacan have cancer, especially
II. Residents and Their Stories
A. The Martija
1. Aida and Family
Aida Martija and her
family have lived in Pandacan since 1974. They live in a small house located
in a poor and cramped section of Pandacan. Life for them is hard because
many family members are sick and every day they fear that something could
go wrong at the depots. Their fear is well-founded because of the accidents
they talk about having lived through. However, they cannot relocate to
a better place because their only viable livelihood is in the city.
Says Aida in Tagalog,
"There's two families in this house consisting of nine people and
most of them are sick. Six of them have asthma. Various members suffer
from bronchitis, primary complex (tuberculosis in infants), broncho-pneumonia,
anemia, skin diseases, intestinal disease, and ulcers. We suffer from
a strange skin disease that seems like an epidemic. Is it every year that
we get it?" she asks somewhat rhetorically of Janylyn Arroyo-Martija,
The rest of the year,
younger family members suffer from skin disease anyway. Janylyn Arroyo-Martija,
says, "All of a sudden a bump will appear like he [my son] has been
bitten, but I don't see any insect. My son scratches it and then he gets
little scabs all over, even on his face and feet."
In 1979, the family
says there was a gas leak that could have exploded at the depots. Everyone
was terrified as they ran to look for cover. Aida had to search for her
children later on since they had all scattered. The trauma of that memory
still lives with them especially since Aida's children were very young
at the time.
2. Aida and Janylyn's Observations About the Situation
There are many families
like the Martijas that cannot relocate because they are too poor. Many
of them, in fact, are workers at the companies that run the depots. Janylyn
said that if they were to relocate to the province, they, like the Martija
family, would have no livelihood as they have no farmland or fishing boat.
They name the schools
that are close to the depot. The Polytechnical University of the Philippines
(PUP) is in the next district and yet has reported foul-smelling substances
from the depot. Even closer to the depot than PUP are the Carlos P. Garcia
high school which is right in front of the entrance to Shell
and the St. Joseph
Parochial School which is near a Caltex filling station.
Aida and Janylyn told
of the Barangay (Section) 835 daycare center which is estimated to be
about 10 to 15 meters from the depot. The daycare was visited by a doctor
from St. Lourdes Hospital and the family says that the results of the
doctor's study showed that 30 out of 40 children at the daycare, or 75%,
Janylyn says that
in the event of a fire in Pandacan, firefighters focus on making sure
the depots are secure because of the high risk posed by the flammeable
materials. "For example," she says, "if there was a house
burning, Petron would be affected right away. So the firefighters would
focus on making sure Petron, and not the houses, are ok. They would pay
attention to Petron first and let the houses burn."
When asked about the
companies, Aida says that they don't do much to help the Pandacan community.
"Sometimes Petron Foundation has a solicitation letter and I never
do anything. I don't ever go to them or solicit from them. Even if you
did ask of them, they'd only give a small amount."
Janylyn adds, "During
Christmas and during fiestas, they do very little. They give small donations
of about 1,000 pesos ($20 US) or a few thousand."
was made by Petron through [Congresswoman] Sandy Ocampo. The politicians
benefit from Petron by making a daycare in the Barangays," says Aida.
"But maybe if there was a [people's] movement, we could make the
owners of the company see. They are also people."
When there are leaks,
Janylyn says, "…they don't say anything about what we are breathing,
but many people become dizzy."
They don't complain
because, Aida says, "Even if you do, nothing happens. They [the companies]
just make excuses." The companies have made no comment about the
illnesses that the residents are suffering. Aida just wants them to leave.
Of course, a lot of money would be needed to relocate the depots, "…but
it is better to spend the money than to have people roasted," Aida
She suspects that
one factor that makes it so difficult to remove the depots is all the
money that comes from the oil companies. She wonders why the Santo NiNo
Church does not have a strong stand on the issue especially since it is
right in the middle of Caltex. She thinks that the Church might receive
a large donation from them. Property taxes paid by the oil companies also
go to the government. Aida emphasizes, therefore, that a people's movement
is needed in order to increase pressure to move. She complains that no
one in the government does health surveys and yet it is clear from the
health center records that there are too many sick people to just let
things continue as they are. Overall, she says that the Mayor and a majority
of the 37-member City Council want the depots relocated, but a people's
movement is strongly needed.
This matter is urgent
to the Martija family not only because of health problems but because
they fear for their lives in the event of a terrorist attack. In Aida's
words, the terrorists "…don't care who they get."
B. Ulpiano Basan, Former Worker at Caltex and Petron
Ulpiano Basan, a mason,
worked at Caltex and then Petron in the 70's and 80's. It was he who closed
the valve at Petron during the 1979 leak mentioned by the Martija family.
He says that just
last year in 2001, "The students and teachers at Polytechnical University
of the Philippines (PUP) smelled leaks from the depot. PUP is already
far from the depot so of course it is even worse here [next to the depot].
They had to cut classes just because of that. They went to the hospital.
It was on the radio and on TV. People were dizzy and vomiting. They smelled
'gasul' [liquefied petroleum gas (LPG)] three times in a span of two weeks.
" The LPG leak could have ignited.
According to Ulpiano,
during a fire, residents sometimes have to pay the firefighters in order
to save their homes because the firefighters' priority is to ensure the
safety of the petrochemical depots.
C. Lucera Castillejos
and Maria Wilma Barrias
1. Lucera and Maria
and Maria Wilma Barrias have lived in Pandacan since 1969. The number
of residents has greatly increased since then and with the larger population
have come many problems not only including the dangers of having so many
households close to the depot but also drug addiction and the feeling
that neighbors in the community don't know each other anymore. Health
problems for the community abound.
Lucera said that the
health of small children is especially affected by the depots. Young children
are sickly and the elderly cough a lot. Residents suffer from asthma,
coughs, colds, and allergies, various other respiratory diseases. Many
of the 13 people in Lucera's and Maria's household suffer from coughs,
cold, and allergies. Maria said that it hurts when she breathes in strange-smelling
fumes from the depot.
When Lucera smells
fumes from the depot, she says, "I become weak, my chest hurts, I
get a cold and a cough."
Maria says that the
symptoms Lucera named only last a short time but they also worry about
what the chemicals are doing to their bodies in the long run. "It
hurts, when it goes in. It seems to go in really deep. They use different
kinds of chemicals. When they load gasoline, of course, it [the vapors]
goes into the air. Others are used to it, so it has no effect on them.
It's even more true of the gasoline. They inhale it and become intoxicated.
It turns out they are [drug] addicts."
Lucera says, "When
they clean the tanks, toxics come out into the air and the water in the
[Pasig] river. Chemicals and poison come out. It also goes into the soil.
The smell wafts out."
Maria said that what
comes out of the tank "smells like penicillin." It hurts the
chest when they inhale it.
Aside from suffering
physical illnesses, fear and trauma also plague the residents. "Once
a year, they have a fire drill. It's just a test. But of course, people
who are new here panic and think there is a fire and that they are dead.
Old-timers like us luckily know it's a fire drill," says Maria. When
asked if advanced notice is given, she answers, "No. Just to the
people inside. The workers. They should give us notice. When people hear
the alarm, the new people living by the train tracks just gape at the
tanks. People here have developed phobias. In 1988 there was a fire. About
4 Barangays were burned." She added that because Barangay 836, which
is very close to the depot, was burning, they feared the depot would catch
2. Lucera and Maria's Observations About the Situation
Lucera and Maria do
their part to make things better in their community. They are members
of Alay Kapwa and Families, Children, Empowerment, and Development (FCED)
- community organizations that try to help residents in different ways.
Alay Kapwa wants the depots out of Pandacan. FCED monitors the health
of babies and their families. Despite their efforts at making life better,
however, Maria complained, "That depot is an old issue. Even when
I was 9 years old. Since 1969. They even changed their names. They've
had about 4 or 5 names. Nothing's happened because the government is getting
a big payoff [property tax]. They pretend to be negotiating, but not really.
When the money comes out, the issue goes away. When a bundle of money
comes out, it goes away. At least during elections, it comes out daily
on tv. You really believe it."
Maria says that the
person who really needs to act is the Mayor of Manila, Lito Atienza. Many
are saying that the depots have to move in six months but she does not
believe it can happen that soon. Maria also complained about lack of transparency
in some of the dealings between the government and the oil companies.
Of one particular meeting between Lito Atienza and some oil companies,
she says, "We had no idea what they were talking about inside. Shouldn't
those things be transparent to the community? All we saw was that on TV
they had had negotiations. It should have been made clear." Lucera
concluded that everyone needs to work together to solve the problems,
not just government officials. (Though the local city government has held
public meetings at which residents were present, Maria's comment makes
the point that residents must be more aware and more involved and that
the local government has a measure of responsibility in this effort.)
Maria says of the
companies Shell, Caltex, Petron, and Mobil, "I think they only pay
attention to their profit. Even if the people next to it have concerns,
the priority is the company. You know when there was a fire here, the
employees of Shell were locked up inside. They didn't let them out. The
first place they fought the fire was inside instead of outside. They locked
the doors. I know because my husband was working there. Putting out the
fire at the depot was given priority before extinguishing it at the residences."
Lucera says that the
companies don't do anything to help the community. "They do nothing
except that they say are going to leave in 6 months. But nothing happens.
The managers never says anything to the community like, 'OK, here is how
you should prepare since we are leaving.' We wonder why they say they
will go but nothing happens." By this time, she would have expected
precautionary warnings and preparations regarding a move if it were really
III. The Players (Government, Business, and NGOs)
A. The Department
of Energy (DOE)
Energy Secretary Vincent
Perez of the DOE said that the DOE, Caltex Philippines, Inc, Petron Corporation,
and Pilipinas Shell Petroleum Corporation agreed to prepare a Master Plan
for relocating the depots. The study is supposed to be done within one
year, meaning by the end of 2002 or beginning of 2003. Any major capital
expenditures except those for the purposes of security, health, and safety
are to be avoided. However, the community won't see complete removal of
the depots until 2008, meaning it will have taken them 6 years to move.
As mentioned earlier
in this report, 2008 is also 5 years after the deadline agreed to by the
oil companies in 1993.
B. Oil Corporations
- Pilipinas Shell Petroleum, Caltex Philippines, Petron Corporation, Mobil,
Following are what
the oil corporations have said regarding the depot issue, and regarding
their health, safety, environment, and sustainable development policies
Petron Vice President
for Supply and Operations Jose K. Campos said towards the end of 2001
that it is willing to cooperate with the government if depot relocation
is determined necessary. Petron expects a relocation to cost P3 billion
not including the costs of the new site and infrastructure needed (Petron
had earlier said the move would cost P1 Billion [US $20 million] , but
for some reason, increased their estimate for the cost of the move.) However,
he said that the matter needed to be evaluated carefully.
It is good that Petron
might be willing to move and so far has been the only oil company to say
so, but how much more evalutaion is needed to show how obviously dangerous
the situation is?
Petron's website says,
"Pandacan Terminal's equipment, facilities, and procedures meet the
most stringent international safety standards."
If the Pandacan terminal
meets safety standards, why are Petron tanks and residences locates side
Petron's website also
says, "He [Campos] added that the Company is capable of handling
any safety and environmental emergency and that they are always involved
in fighting fires in the vicinity of the Terminal. He cited a recent fire
in the residential community of Pandacan, which was extinguished by the
industry's fire-fighting teams before the arrival of the fire department."
If homes, schools,
restaurants, stores, barbecue vendors, and the depot tanks were not so
close to each other in the first place, fires would not pose as huge of
a threat as they do now.
In September 2001,
after the September 11 attacks, Shell said that a risk study would need
to be done to show whether "we really need to transfer or just improve
Besides the fact that
the situation in Pandacan is obviously dangerous, the oil companies already
conducted a study in 1993 and do not need to do a new one according to
Manila City Councilor Jocelyn Dawis-Asuncion. She said in late 2001 that
the oil firms' most recent proposal to conduct a "comprehensive study"
which could take 6 to 18 months is a delaying tactic. They conducted studies
in 1993 on the possible transfer. "They considered the transfer eight
years ago so all they need to do is to plug in current values and they
have a study," she said.
"Shell aims to
have a Health, Safety and Environment (HSE) performance it can be proud
of, to earn the earn the confidence of customers, shareholders and society
at large, to be a good neighbor and to contribute to the principles of
If only Shell would
live up to this statement…
is the policy of each Shell company to: Have a systematic approach to
HSE [Health, Safety, and Environment] management designed to ensure compliance
with the law and to achieve continuous performance improvement."
Shell should comply
with its agreement with the Ramos administration in 1993 to move by 2003
(see section V. of this report).
"In this light,
Shell companies in the Philippines have made a commitment to: Pursue the
goal of no harm to people; Protect the environment in a manner that is
consistent with Sustainable Development and business viability; Publicly
report our performance."
As we can see from
Aida's, Lucera's, and Ulpiano's stories, people and the environment have
been harmed for too long.
Development is a way of developing and safeguarding our reputation and
it will help us develop our businesses in line with society's needs and
From this statement,
it looks like Shell's priority in 'developing sustainably' is to gain
good PR mileage for the company.
the importance of: protecting the health and safety of its employees,
contractors and customers, and the communities in which it operates; protecting
and preserving the environment; ensuring the safe operation of its facilities;
producing safe products; and meeting its social responsibilities."
If only Caltex would
put its money where its beliefs are…
"To fulfil [sic]
the intent, each Caltex Corporation subsidiary and Business Unit will:
Comply with all applicable environmental, health, fire and safety laws
and regulations and apply, consistent with industry best practice and
Caltex' EHS Principles, responsible standards in the absence of appropriate
laws and regulations…"
There is now an order
from the Mayor of Manila to move by mid-2002 and still Caltex and the
DOE say long-drawn out studies need to be done. Petron has already explicity
stated it might be willing to move and has given an estimate for it, but
Caltex has done nothing of the sort.
Here are the practices
Mobil engages in in Australia, a first world country:
Regarding soil remediation,
Mobil's Australia website says, "It [Mobil] has well-tried procedures
to contain or clean up leaks or spillages should they occur… In validating
soil quality at operating sites (particularly those marked for closure),
Mobil carries out a careful survey to check for liquids and vapours. Sometimes
bore wells are sunk to obtain soil samples for laboratory analysis. Where
soil is contaminated, a number of remediation techniques are available…
In some extreme cases soil will have to be removed and replaced with clean
soil. The contaminated soil… is taken to a location such [as] an
approved landfill site where it can be remediated safely, with no possible
impact on human health."
Would Mobil follow
these practices in the Philippines, a third world country?
Regarding the Altona
Refinery in Australia, Mobil's Australia website says, "When first
established in 1946, the refinery was located several kilometres from
the nearest residents, but urban spread has meant the Western suburbs
industrial and residential communities are now inseparably linked…
Coupled with increasingly stringent environmental requirements, there
has thus been a dramatic increase in the community's environmental expectations…
In a number of areas, the Refinery has consistently achieved better results
than are required by various regulatory authorities. Since 1989, significant
progress has been made in beautification of the refinery site through
extensive tree planting programs. Waste water, atmospheric emissions and
solid wastes have all been substantially reduced."
Altona sounds like
Pandacan, except for the fact that communities in Pandacan are literally
right next to the tanks. Similar to Altona, people in Pandacan have had
an increase in environmental expectations and one can only hope these
expectations will become stronger.
As of this writing,
no information was found on Unioil's environment, health, and safety practices.
However, regarding its Pandacan facilities, Unioil does say on its website
that, "At present Unioil's storage tanks are strategically located
in Pandacan and Sta. Ana to facilitate the efficient distribution of products
from Bataan to Manila."
Efficiency, it seems,
does not take into account human health and safety. No mention of these
or other environmental or health concerns could be found on Unioil's website.
C. Other players including Non-government parties (Note: this is by
no means a comprehensive list)
1. Akbayan Citizens'
Action Party - A citizens' political party with the aim of achieving
greater participation of citizens and alternative social movement groups
in the formal processes of government.
2. Alvin Estrada - spokesperson for the United Fire Fighters of
3. Dick Gabac - Akbayan Citizens' Action Party'sa community organizer
4. Aidan E. Tasker-Lynch - Executive Director of the Philippine
Society of Emergency Medical Technicians and Training Director of the
Life Support Training Institute. He has been involved in different sectors
of the oil industry for 15 years, including his term as Chief of Emergency
Medical Services for the Industrial (Petrochemical) City of Yanbu in Saudi
Arabia. At present he is a consultant in emergency medical services to
University of the Philippines (UP) / Philippine General Hospital (PGH).
5. Other groups including Caltex workers and their families and
Bayan Muna (a national progressive political party "representing
the national and democratic aspirations of the people, especially the
poorest and most disadvantaged," ), have been working on the issue
There have been at
least four sites named as possible alternatives to Pandacan. One is a
reclamation area in Pasay city near the mouth of the Pasig River. There
is the 500 hectare Philippine National Oil Company (PNOC) site in Bataan.
Another is a 50-hectare island off the coast of Pampanga. The third is
a reclamation site off the coast of Navotas. The Senate Representative
of Malabon-Navotas, Ricky Sandoval, said he would welcome the depots and
that they would boost the town's small fishing industry and generate more
jobs. Some have said, however, that Navotas is a bad option since a depot
there might pollute fishing waters and lead to a diminishing number of
fishing jobs as well as make fish consumers sick.
In a position paper
presented to the Philippine Senate by Aidan Tasker-Lynch, he states that
in 1993, a verbal agreement was reached between the government and the
oil companies to phase out the depots over the next ten years. Instead
of phasing out their operations however, Shell, Caltex, and Petron have
actually expanded them. Now there is only one year left until the deadline.
As stated earlier in this report, Manila City Councilor Jocelyn Dawis-Asuncion
said that the oil firms' most recent proposal to conduct a "comprehensive
study" which could take 6 to 18 months is a delaying tactic and that
they already conducted studies in 1993 which only need to be updated.
Hopes were renewed
in December 2001, when Manila City Mayor Lito Atienza signed an ordinance
reclassifying the 32 hectare depot site from industrial to commercial.
He said that the companies must transfer the depots in six months, meaning
by mid-2002 or around June 30.
The oil companies
have had almost similar reactions. Shell and Caltex said that a study
would need to be done. Petron Corporation said it might be willing to
move if the government deemed it necessary but that preparations alone
for the master plan would take 6 to 12 months.
Mayor Atienza, however,
rejected their position that it would take them at least 12 months just
to study whether to move. Any oil company remaining in the area after
the six-month deadline would face stiff penalties from his office. However,
latest reports are that in January of 2001, oil companies filed a suit
Although Mayor Lito
Atienza is firm in his stance on depot removal, the Department of Energy
(DOE) and Petron, Shell, and Caltex have agreed to prepare a master plan
for the relocation of the depots which could take a year to complete according
to Energy Secretary Vincent Pérez, Jr. Implementation of the plan,
however shall be done in phases within five years meaning that according
to this plan, the depots will not be gone until 2008, five years after
the deadline agreed to by the oil companies in 1993. This is also a very
different deadline, unfortunately, from the one Atienza recently gave.
Promises have been
made and, over time, have not come to fruition. The fact that then President
Fidel Ramos and the oil companies had an agreement in 1993 to move the
depots within 10 years was a step in the right direction, but Ramos could
have pushed to have the depots move within 4 years since his term ended
in 1998. That way, the oil companies would have been accountable to him
and not to the next administration whose commitment to moving the depots
he could not guarantee. Unless promises are made and fulfilled within
the same administration (on any level of government), an agreement, especially
a verbal one, can become an empty promise which functions as a vote-magnet
for politicians and as a PR stunt and delaying tactic for other parties
rather than an enforceable pact. Companies can continue their ways under
new administrations whose susceptibility to either forgetting about the
agreement or being swayed in favor of the oil corporations is always a
While the politicking
continues in the upper echelons of the corporate world and government,
people are suffering illnesses and fearing their own fiery deaths in the
event of accidents or terrorist attacks. Will the relocation take another
six possibly toxic years? Will the relocation happen at all? The September
11 attacks are what brought the issue once again into the public's eye
and yet, in the tradition of Philippine political amnesia, the issue risks
fading from memory. The oil companies, yet again, want to take advantage
of this forgetfulness and complacency. The people and the government must
seize this window of opportunity now to save thousands from illnesses
possibly linked to the depots and from the threat posed by living next
to it. The health, safety, and security of resident Lucera Castillejos,
not to mention the thousands of others, are human rights that she shares
with you and I - not privileges.
The people of Pandacan
must be heard and be active in the campaign to relocate the depots because
they provide the political will and are intimately aware of the situation.
Mayor Lito Atienza's job is to represent his constituents and without
their active support, he might not be able to achieve relocation of the
All the residents
interviewed want to prevent something similar to what happened in Chernobyl,
Bhopal, or Mexico from happening in the Philippines. They agree that letting
the world know what is happening will help their situation. One strategy
is to conduct a letter-writing campaign to send a message to the oil companies
and to government. International letter-writing could begin and increase
pressure on the companies.
Education of residents
is key. They can organize amongst themselves and with the experience and
technical assistance of various groups, can educate each other about the