MANILA, Philippines - Several preventive measures are being undertaken within the site of the stranded US Navy minesweeper USS Guardian in Tubbataha Reef as initial assessment showed that approximately 1,000 square meters of corals have been severely damaged.
Transportation Secretary Joseph Emilio Abaya yesterday reported that measures are being undertaken to minimize further environmental damage.
There are also efforts to protect biodiversity in the reef.
“Measures are being done to contain damage to corals, monitor possible oil spillage, and assess damage to the vessel. As of now, there is no indication of an oil spill, and the ship’s fuel tanks appear intact,” Abaya said.
He said the initial assessment from an inspection team showed that approximately 1,000 square meters of corals have been severely damaged due to the incident.
Likewise, an accredited salvage company has been commissioned to conduct a more detailed inspection to confirm the findings of the inspection team.
DOTC undersecretary Eduardo Oban Jr. is currently on site to oversee salvage efforts being conducted by the Philippine Coast Guard in coordination with the US Navy, the Philippine Navy, Marine Environmental Palawan Unit (MEPU), and the Tubbataha Management Office.
Oban said MEPU would continue to perform water sampling once the USS Guardian is extracted from the site.
A team of Coast Guard divers conducted water sampling and checked the reefs yesterday to visually inspect possible presence of spilt oil within the vicinity.
The Coast Guard submitted a report to the DOTC showing video clips and photographs of the state of the USS Guardian as of 3 p.m. yesterday.
A second group of divers was dispatched to conduct underwater survey of the starboard side of the US Navy warship.
The Coast Guard personnel operating from BRP Corregidor (AE-891) was dispatched last Friday from Manila and are continually monitoring the incident zone to watch for possible oil spill.
The Coast Guard said Task Force Tubbataha and the US government are exploring three options to remove the warship stuck in the coral reefs.
Coast Guard spokesman Commander Armand Balilo said the 68-meter minesweeper could either be pulled, sealifted using cranes, or chopped into smaller parts.
“As of now there is still no finality on how the vessel would be removed from Tubbataha Reef,” Balilo said.
Aside from the US Navy and the local firm Malayan Towage, the US government has also hired a Singaporean firm to aid them in the salvaging operations.
He added two vessels equipped with cranes have already left Singapore and are on their way to Palawan in the event that they would use cranes to lift the ship.
But whatever option they take, Balilo said it was important to lighten the load of the ship such as removing the 15,000 liters of automotive diesel oil from the grounded vessel; remove some equipment and the controllable pitch propeller.
“This is in preparation for the salvaging operations. We would still discuss and finalize the operation plan. It is the Tubbataha Task Force that would issue the salvaging permit,” he added.
The USNS Bowditch and the BRP Corregidor are also practicing the laying down of oil spill booms around the American vessel just in case there is an oil leak.
The US Navy is also preparing their anti-hazardous materials at the atoll. Also on standby are three Philippine Navy ships.
“We are reviewing all options but we would not risk the safety of our personnel or risk further damaging the marine environment,” Coast Guard Commandant Rear Admiral Rodolfo Isorena said.
Abaya said the Philippine government has the basis to file a claim against the US government over the incident.
He said the law is very clear on the matter, which entitles the aggrieved party a certain amount for damages brought to the protected area.
“I assume it’s clearly in the Tubbataha Law. It’s incumbent upon our government to file such a claim,” Abaya said.
“The law doesn’t distinguish whether this was negligence or inadvertence or intentional. What is clear in the law is that we could claim damages – not really looking into the intent on how it happened,” Abaya explained further.
Presidential spokesman Edwin Lacierda echoed Abaya’s statements.
“They (US) are a strategic ally and I think they are cognizant of their responsibility to our government and also to a very important environmental site. This was already acknowledged by Admiral Scott Swift in his expression of regrets,” Lacierda said.
“I think we would be more focused on the damage to the reef and whatever claims,” Abaya added.
As a former Navy man, Abaya knows the ship captain will be penalized for the incident.
“Based on what I know from the Navy – even from our Navy – grounding of a vessel is a mortal sin. It could destroy careers. I could expect they will come hard on their commanding officer,” he said.
Lawmakers led by Sen. Loren Legarda sought a congressional inquiry into the incident.
Legarda, chair of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, filed a resolution calling for the full disclosure and accounting of the total damages arising from the grounding of the US warship.
She said the incident highlights the need to ensure full protection of the Philippines’ marine resources by all vessels, foreign or domestic, within territorial waters amidst geo-political developments in the region.
Legarda said she was alarmed by reports that the personnel of the US Navy ship failed to coordinate closely with the personnel of the protected area when the ship had already destroyed an estimated 10 meters of corals.
Even as its ship remained aground within the protected area for six days, the park rangers of the Tubbataha Protected Area Management Board (TPAMB) were reportedly barred by the US Navy ship commander from assessing the situation by deploying armed personnel on the dock of the ship.
Legarda explained that no person or entity should enter or utilize any portion of the Tubbataha Reefs Natural Park (TRNP) and the resources for whatever purpose without proper permission from the board under Section 19 of the Republic Act no. 10067 or the TRNP Act of 2009.
Militant groups, on the other hand, continued to slam the US government, as well as the Philippine government for their failure to immediately address the problem.
The human rights group Karapatan accused the government of being inconsistent in dealing with the issue of sovereignty in showing loyalty with the US.
Cristina Palabay, Karapatan secretary-general, said President Aquino is particularly interested in acquiring the $30 million in military aid allocated by the US government.
“That would explain why the government condones the unauthorized entry of the USS Guardian at Tubbataha Reef. The Aquino government had a similar reaction when a
BQM-74E target drone was recovered in waters off San Jacinto town on Ticao Island, Masbate on Jan. 7. It’s a classic display of mendicancy and subservience to the US,” she said.
Militants groups like the Pambansang Lakas ng Kilusang Mamamalakaya ng Pilipinas (Pamalakaya) and the Anakpawis party-list are set to hold a “protest swim” today in the Manila Bay to be as near as possible to the US embassy as a way of airing their sentiment on the Tubbataha Reef accident.
The two groups also questioned why the Department of Justice (DOJ) has remained silent on the case.
“We were expecting De Lima to issue a legal opinion as to the criminal liabilities of the US government, revolving around flagrant violations of the 1987 Constitution, environmental havoc and other concerns pertaining to national patrimony and social justice.”
“We hope Secretary de Lima will rise above the occasion and pursue the legitimate concerns of the Filipino public along the lines of national sovereignty, environmental and social justice,” said Fernando Hicap of Anakpawis party list and incumbent chair of Pamalakaya.
Former senator Ramon Magsaysay Jr., on the other hand, said there was no malice on the part of the US Navy.
“There was clearly a navigational error, more probably caused by inaccurate digital mapping,” he said.
Magsaysay cited his conversation with retired Navy Commodore Domingo Salipsip who said coral reefs change and they continue to grow every year.
When asked on the purpose of the USS Guardian in the Philippine territory, Magsaysay admitted that the US warship is indeed “in Philippine waters.”
–Jaime Laude, Evelyn Macairan, Delon Porcalla, Rainier Allan Ronda, Christina Mendez, Rhodina Villanueva, Ding Cervantes, Dino Balabo, Michelle Zoleta