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US still doesn’t know why ship is at Tubbataha Reef

THE United States (US) government wants to know the circumstances about the grounding of the minesweeper USS Guardian at Tubbataha Reef.

Despite repeated apologies to the government, the US remained silent on why the warship disregarded Philippine maritime laws and a UN convention that prohibits ships from passing through a world heritage site such as the Tubbataha Reef on Sulu Sea.

“The US Navy is undertaking an extensive investigation to assess the circumstances and facts surrounding the USS Guardian accident. The ship had just completed a port call in Subic Bay and was transiting directly through the Sulu Sea en route to its next port of call in Indonesia when the grounding occurred,” the US Embassy in Manila said in a statement.

“All relevant factors will be looked into during the course of the investigation, and the proximate cause of the incident will be made public at a later date,” it added.

The embassy said the removal of the ship’s fuel has been completed.

“A US Navy-led salvage team has removed the bulk of fuel oil and materials that could pose environmental risks, such as paint, solvents and lubricants from mine countermeasures ship USS Guardian [MCM 5], which ran aground on the Tubbataha Reef on January 17,” it said.

The US Navy continues to remove materials from the ship, to assess and manage structural issues and to prepare the Guardian for safe removal, all the while seeking to protect the natural environment of Tubbataha Reef, it added.

“No fuel has leaked since the grounding, and all of the ship’s approximately 15,000 gallons of diesel fuel was safely transferred to the US-contracted Malaysian tug-boat, the Vos Apollo, during controlled defueling operations completed on January 25,” it said.

The embassy said salvaging of the ship will start on February 1.

“US Navy ship salvage and maritime architecture experts continue to develop the salvage plan and perform work to reinforce the structure of the ship, such as reinforcing the hull with Kevlar lines in an effort to reduce the strain that the ship sustains due to wave action. Two heavy lift ship-borne cranes have been contracted to support the salvage operations, and are due to arrive on-scene by February 1st,” it said.

Meanwhile, the Embassy said the 69 Guardian sailors not needed for recovery operations were transferred to the USNS Rappahannock (T-AO 204) on January 22 for transit back to the ship’s forward-base in Sasebo, Japan. The USNS Rappahannock is expected to dock in Sasebo on Monday.

“The Guardian’s commanding officer and other technical experts from among the crew remain on-scene near the Tubbataha Reef, to work with the recovery team, in coordination with the Philippine Coast Guard, Philippine Navy and local environmental agencies,” it said.

 

US Navy paid Hawaii $15M for 2009 coral reef incident

THE US government is facing so far a fine of P38 million for the damage caused by the USS Guardian.

The fine can be considered small, compared to what the US Navy had to pay Hawaii in 2009 for the damage caused by the USS Port Royal, a guided missile cruiser, that ran aground and damaged coral reefs in Hawaii, less than half the size of the estimated damage in Tubbataha Reef.

The USS Port Royal on February 5, 2009, ran aground less than a kilometer from the Honolulu International Airport in Hawaii and destroyed about 890 square meters of coral reef, for which it was fined a total amount of $15 million, or about P610 million, according to World Wildlife Fund-Philippines.

The US Navy promised to pay the State of Hawaii $8.5 million to settle claims over coral-reef damage, plus another $6.5 million for reef restoration—including the reattachment of 5400 coral colonies to expedite regrowth.

For the Philippines, Tubbataha is the cradle of marine life.

Formed from the eruption of undersea volcanoes nearly 15 million years ago, Tubbataha, or “long reef” in the Samal dialect, features dramatic coral-coated slopes and drop-offs patrolled by over 600 species of fish—ranging from the fingernail-sized Striped Triplefin (Helcogramma striata) to the truck-sized Whale Shark (Rhincodon typus), largest of all fish.

A Unesco World Heritage site, the Tubbataha Reef  boasts of unparalleled biodiversity levels. A typical square kilometer of healthy coral reef annually yields up to 40 metric tons of seafood.  Tubbataha Reef generates over 200 metric tons of seafood yearly.

An official of the Climate Change Commission, Commissioner Heherson Alvarez, proposed that an assessment on the damage to be paid by the US government for the Tubbataha incident be left to the Unesco, since the reef is a Unesco World Heritage site.

As of Monday, the 68-meter long USS Guardian still sits on the northwestern portion of the Tubbataha Reefs’ South Atoll, its wood-and-fiberglass hull breached and taking a pounding from 10-foot waves brought in by the hanging amihan—the northeasterly winds from Siberia.

A composite team from the US Navy, Philippine Navy and Philippine Coast Guard are now braving violent currents and swells to remove 15,000 gallons of fuel from the stricken ship.

If successful, marine engineers will attempt to de-water and refloat the craft using a crane vessel—a ship specialized in lifting heavy loads.

“Like a ticking taxi meter, the passing of each minute and hour raises the stakes,” WWF-Philippines Vice Chairman Jose Maria Lorenzo Tan, a member of the Tubbataha Protected Area Management Board, said.

Nevertheless, Tan said that safety must be the primary consideration over speed saying that “hasty efforts might do further harm to the reef.”

Preliminary assessments indicate that the area damaged by the 1300-ton ship spans at least 1600 square meters—almost twice the area flattened by the USS Port Royal in Hawaii in 2009.

Tubbataha Reefs Park Supt. Angelique Songco says that under Republic Act 10067, or the Tubbataha Reefs Natural Park Act of 2009, a fine of about $300 or P12,000 per square meter is mandatory, plus another $300 or so per square meter for rehabilitation efforts.

Given the estimated size of damaged reef, the minimum fine would be $960,000 or P38 million—still miniscule compared with the fines paid by the US for its 2009 Port Royal incident. Further sanctions include unauthorized park entry, non-payment of conservation fees, destruction of resources and the obstruction of law enforcement.

“This is not the first grounding incident in the park—all previous cases paid the fines for damages. We will not ask for anything more than what the law requires. We wish only for the US Navy to be responsible enough when entering our protected areas,” Songco explained.

US Ambassador to the Philippines Harry Thomas Jr. said the US government will take steps to address the environmental issues that have arisen from the incident.

“Clearly, parallelisms between the USS Guardian and the USS Port Royal can be made. In the case of the Port Royal, the US Navy did the right thing by working cooperatively to fund the restoration and continued protection of the damaged reef. It is our hope that the same respect accorded to the people of Hawaii be given to the Philippines. For even though corals, sponges and fish shall one day return to the stricken site—the scars borne by the USS Guardian will take years to heal,” Tan said.

With Jonathan L. Mayuga and Bong Fabe

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