Groups take US to SC over Tubbataha damage

Rhodina Villanueva - The Philippine Star

MANILA, Philippines - The Supreme Court (SC) was asked yesterday to determine the penalty to be imposed on the US Navy officers and crew of the USS Guardian that ran aground on Tubbataha Reef last Jan. 17.

In a 90-page petition, the groups that included two Catholic bishops, environmentalists, activists and lawyers yesterday sought a “Writ of Kalikasan” from the SC to assess the damage caused by the grounding of the Guardian.

The groups are asking the high court for a Temporary Environmental Protection Order (TEPO) for the Tubbataha Reef, a determination of the fine to be imposed on the US Navy and the prosecution of the officers of the Guardian.

The groups are also asking the SC to order a stop to US war games and port calls by US ships in the absence of clear guidelines on environmental protection under the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA).

The filing came exactly three months since the grounding of the ship in the UNESCO world heritage site. The last section of the ship was removed last March 29 and more than 2,000 square meters of reef were assessed to have been damaged by the warship.

This is the first time foreign troops have been named respondents in the Writ of Kalikasan.

The petition cites, in general, the violation of the right to a balanced and healthful ecology, and in particular, of the Tubbataha Reefs Natural Park Act of 2009, or Republic Act No. 10067.

The petitioners include Bishop Pedro Arigo of Puerto Princesa, Palawan; Bishop Deogracias Iniguez Jr., Bishop-Emeritus of Caloocan; Frances Quimpo, Clemente Bautista Jr. of Kalikasan-Pne; Maria Carolina Araullo and Renato Reyes Jr. of Bagong Alyansang Makabayan (Bayan); Bayan Muna Rep. Neri Colmenares; Roland Simbulan of Junk VFA Movement; Teresita Perez; Kabataan party-list Rep. Raymond Palatino; Peter Gonzales of Pamalakaya; Giovanni Tapang, Agham; Elmer Labog, Kilusang Mayo Uno; Joan May Salvador, Gabriela; Jose Enrique Africa; Theresa Concepcion; Mary Joan Guan; Nestor Baguinon, and public interest lawyer Edsel Tupaz.

Named respondents in the petition are Scott Swift in his capacity as commander of the US 7th Fleet; Mark Rice, commanding officer of the USS Guardian; along with government officials led by President Aquino, the military and Cabinet members.

Bayan, together with other petitioners, are seeking a fine for the US that is 12 times the initial estimate of the Philippine government.

Comparing valuations in the 2009 grounding of the USS Port Royal in Hawaii, the petitioners said the just and reasonable compensation for the damage to Tubbataha is between $16.8 million and $27 million, a far cry from the $1.4 million Philippine government estimate.

Four years ago under similar circumstances, they said the US Navy paid the state of Hawaii a total of $15 million for restoration and settlement for damage to an Oahu reef, which while larger than Tubbataha, has not been identified as a world heritage site.

Petitioners said Tubbataha’s biodiversity concentration is 2.3 times more than that of the Hawaii reef.

Aside from the fines, the petitioners wanted the US forces responsible for the Tubbataha grounding to be prosecuted under Philippine laws.

Petitioners said the US Navy cannot invoke immunity under the VFA. They also believe that the US war games and port calls by US warships pose a threat to the environment, especially since there are no clear guidelines under the VFA.

“We are asking the High Court to require respondents from the US military to assume responsibility for prior and future environmental damage in general, and environmental damage under the VFA regime in particular. Meanwhile, petitioners are hoping that the TEPO will also include a stop to further US port calls and military exercises,” Bayan secretary-general Reyes said.

“It is our hope that the Supreme Court will act favorably on this petition and prevent further damage to our environment caused by the permanent and continuing presence of US troops and warships in our country,” he said.

 Three months after the Guardian struck Tubbataha, the Chinese fishing boat F/B Min Long Yu got stranded in the reef.

The 12 Chinese fishermen were charged with poaching and illegal entry.

 Officials said the 12 would also face additional charges of violating the Wildlife Resources and Conservation Protection Act for the 400 boxes of anteaters seized from their boat.

The Coast Guard said they have also dispatched a tugboat M/T Limay to assist in extracting the Min Long Yu from the reef.

 The M/T Limay would pull Ming Long Yu to Puerto Princesa where its contents, including its cargo of anteaters, would be used as evidence. – Evelyn Macairan

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