Reef grounding: SC orders US to explain

Edu Punay - The Philippine Star

MANILA, Philippines - The Supreme Court (SC) has acted on the petition filed by a multisectoral group in April seeking higher penalties for and criminal prosecution of US Navy officers and crew of the USS Guardian, which ran aground on Tubbataha Reef last January.

The SC has asked the US government to answer the petition that named as respondents Scott Swift, commander of the US Seventh Fleet, and Mark Rice, commanding officer of the Guardian.

A member of the high court confirmed to The STAR over the weekend that a letter has been sent to the US embassy in Manila for this purpose.

“The US embassy has been notified that they must file a comment on the petition, among others, to pay a fine for the destruction of the World Heritage Site and for illegal entry into a protected site,” the insider said.

The insider, who asked not be named, said the US government’s response would serve as a test case if the US will even pay attention to it or invoke international treaties or laws,” the source stressed.

Apart from the US embassy, the SC also sought comments from Malacañang, Cabinet members and officials of the military to the petition for writ of Kalikasan filed by two Catholic bishops, environmentalists, activists and lawyers.

The SC, however, did not immediately issue a temporary environment protection order (TEPO) on the UNESCO world heritage site sought by petitioners.

The month-long recess of justices intended for writing of decisions delayed the action on the case. The high court resumed session last June 4.

In a 90-page petition filed last April 17, the group asked the SC to assess the damage caused to the reef by the grounding of the Guardian.

Apart from issuance of the writ and TEPO, they also sought a determination of the fine to be imposed on the US Navy and the prosecution of the officers of the Guardian.

Petitioners 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 after the USS Guardian, a minesweeper of the US Navy, got stuck in the corals in Tubbataha Reef, a UNESCO 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 a petition for writ of Kalikasan.

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

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.

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

As for their call for prosecution, 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.












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