Sunday, November 21, 2010

'Writ of Kalikasan' issued vs pipeline

The Supreme Court yesterday temporarily stopped First Philippine Industrial Corp. (FPIC) from operating its pipeline earlier found to be leaking fuel in a residential area in Makati City.

For the first time, the SC issued a “writ of Kalikasan” and temporary environmental protection order (TEPO) under its new rules on environmental cases, ordering FPIC to “cease and desist from operating the pipeline until further orders from the Court.”

The Court initially granted a petition filed last Monday by residents of West Tower Condominium and Barangay Bangkal who claimed to have suffered health and environmental hazards from the leakage.

The writ of Kalikasan is a remedy formulated by the Court under the watch of former Chief Justice Reynato Puno to better protect the rights of the citizens to a balanced and healthful ecology as enshrined in the Constitution.

Petitioners’ lawyer Lorna Kapunan immediately lauded the order, giving assurance that the temporary closure of the 117-kilometer pipeline of FPIC that transports fuel from refineries in Batangas to Manila would not affect the supply of fuel and gasoline in the market.

She said the Department of Energy has already required oil firms during inspection of the site earlier in the day to take part in the Senate probe to find alternative ways like use of barges and trucks to deliver their supplies to fuel stations all over the metropolis.

Chief Justice Renato Corona issued yesterday the writ of Kalikasan in compliance with the rules on environmental cases requiring issuance of the order three days after filing of the petition that is found “sufficient in form and substance.”

Court administrator and spokesman Jose Midas Marquez said respondent is required to submit return of the writ within a non-extendible period of 10 days from receipt.
FPIC was also ordered to check the structural integrity of the entire span of its pipeline and submit a report to the Court within 60 days.

In a press conference, Marquez stressed that the Court issued the order after taking into consideration the danger that the pipeline poses to the public.

He said any repercussion of the writ – especially to the business of FPIC and oil firms – should be raised to the Court when respondents submit the return.

After submission of the reply of FPIC, the Court would then look into the merits of the case and decide whether the closure of the pipeline would become permanent.

In their petition, the residents invoked their constitutional right to a balanced and healthful ecology in seeking the building of a new pipeline.

They said FPIC should be held liable for the leakage, which has been causing respiratory problems and groundwater contamination in the area, due to its failure to maintain and secure the structural integrity of the 43-year-old pipeline.

“The omission or failure of FPIC to timely replace the old, spilling and damaged pipelines and to observe extraordinary diligence as required from it as a common carrier, particularly in ensuring that the pipelines are in good condition, especially since the goods that it transports are hazardous to those exposed to it, caused the petroleum spill,” they alleged in the 36-page petition.

Petitioners said FPIC, as a common carrier and public utility, failed to perform its duties with high degree of care or extraordinary diligence.

This violates Article II Section 16 of the Constitution, which protects right to healthful ecology.

They warned that the damages of the leakage could extend to other areas covered by the pipeline that runs from Batangas to the Pandacan oil depot in Manila because of such “acts of negligence” of FPIC.

They added that the continuous use of the pipeline would not only be a hazard or a threat to the lives, health and property of those who live in areas where the pipeline is laid, but would “also affect the rights of the generations yet unborn to live in a balanced and healthy ecology.”

To allow the continuous operation of the pipeline and its imminent environmental damage would be a clear violation of the Clean Water Act of 2004, the Clean Air Act of 1999, and Presidential Decree 1152 or the Philippine Environmental Code, they added.

They said there is a need for FPIC to continue checking the structural integrity of the pipeline and make periodic reports until a replacement is built.

Petitioners also asked the Court to “prohibit (the Lopez-owned firm) from opening the pipeline and allowing the use thereof until the same has been thoroughly checked and replaced.”

They also sought the opening of a special trust fund “to answer similar contingencies in the future.”

Kapunan told reporters in an interview that they opted to go straight to the SC instead of filing the petition in the trial court to do away with a filing fee that could amount to P45 million.

She said the 80 families residing at the West Tower Condominium do not want a band-aid solution to the problem and they want the pipeline permanently shut down and a new one laid out.

She said the residents did not only suffer financially due to the gas leak, but they also had health problems caused by gas fumes they inhaled since July.

The petroleum leak, first reported in July, had prompted the Makati City government to evacuate the residents of the condominium, where large amounts of diesel, kerosene and other petroleum products had accumulated at the basement.

Named respondents in the petition were officials of FPIC and its manager First Gen Corp. led by chairman of the board Federico Lopez and chairman emeritus Oscar Lopez.

The petition in the SC was filed while FPIC told the Senate at a hearing that it has undertaken enough measures to look for the leakage and has helped the residents of the condominium by providing portable vacuums to remove the fumes.

The firm claimed that most of its pipeline is “safe and only needs some checking at several points.”

Meanwhile, Energy Secretary Jose Rene Almendras refused to comment on the issuance of the writ of Kalikasan against FPIC.

“I don’t want to react in the context that I don’t want to be accused of siding with any particular interest group,” Almendras said.

Almendras, however, warned that the continuing delay in the operation of the pipeline would cause a nightmare to oil companies, which will eventually affect consumers.

“But I will tell you honestly now that we have problem, as we already have a problem now. So the prolonged closure is going to create more problems. The alternatives is we better start buying and importing tanker trucks, barges and ships, if we can find them,” he said.

“Because there must be a way to transport that refined product from Batangas to Manila. There must be a way of controlling the tides at the Pasig River, because when the tide is too high the barges cannot go in there because you hit the bridges. When the tide is too low, the barges cannot go in because it’s too shallow,” he said.

“Those are the realities that we have to face up to. It’s not as if we bring in x number of barges and the problem is solved. There are other choke points, there are logistical realities that have to be faced,” he said.

Officials of FPIC were not available for comment.


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