Australia and France agree to clean up the oil spill

Philippines has asked France and Australia to pledge their help to clean up a massive oil spill from a sunken tanker, and they have agreed, President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo said Monday.

Arroyo thanked the United States and Japan for sending experts to help deal with the spill, which has contaminated resorts, marine reserves, seaweed farms and fishing communities on the southern coast of Guimaras island and outlying areas, AP reports.

Officials will appeal for more foreign assistance, she said, adding that Australia and France have offered help. She did not elaborate on the specific aid that both countries might provide.

Solar I, carrying about 2 million liters (500,000 gallons) of bunker oil, sank off Guimaras on Aug. 11 in rough seas, then began spilling oil that has affected a 220-kilometer (137-mile) stretch of coastline.

An investigation will pinpoint criminal liability and come up with ways to prevent a recurrence, Arroyo said.

"There will be a wide-ranging investigation to find out what happened, who was responsible and what steps (are) needed to be taken to ensure this accident would never happen again," Arroyo told the Radio Mindanao Network.

Traces of oil have been carried by the currents to the shores of two towns in Iloilo province, about 50 kilometers (31 miles) west of Guimaras, coast guard officials said.

The Guimaras provincial government has reported that more than 26,000 people - directly and indirectly dependent on fishing - have been affected.

Environment Secretary Angelo Reyes said the tanker has been located about 700 meters (2,296 feet) under the sea. Officials will wait for a Japanese salvage ship to arrive later this week and examine the tanker with a remote-controlled probe before deciding what to do next, he said.

If the tanker still has oil in it, the government may siphon off the remaining bunker fuel because it could break apart if lifted, Reyes said, adding that entombing the vessel under the seabed would be too costly.

"We have to do this quick because some people say it's a disaster again waiting to happen," Reyes told ABS-CBN television.

Arroyo, who visited Guimaras on Saturday, returned to the island Monday to check on the progress of a large-scale cleanup and steps taken by officials to safeguard the health of villagers living near contaminated shores and help them find other sources of income.

"We assure the affected residents that the government, together with international partners, is doing only the best to bring back the healthy state of Guimaras," she said.

Arroyo said the government will ask the conservation group World Wildlife Fund to come up with scientific analyses and solutions to protect Guimaras' marine environment.

A top executive of Petron Corp., the country's largest oil refiner and owner of the leaking fuel, told a Senate inquiry that his company has helped clean up 62 kilometers (38 miles) of Guimaras coastline by hiring more than 1,000 villagers.

Jose Jesus Laurel, Petron vice president for legal and external affairs, said the massive cleanup could be completed in 30-45 days.

The oil spill, one of the worst to hit the country, struck a region known for its marine reserves, rich fishing areas and popular beach resorts. It also exposed weaknesses in the government's ability to deal with such accidents.