The United States Navy has sent 10 American divers to assess the situation and brought in two private salvor ships to try to extricate its minesweeper that got stuck on Tubbataha Reef, a world-renowned marine sanctuary in the Sulu Sea, the Philippine Navy said on Sunday.
Environmentalists have expressed worry the extraction may damage the reef more. Palawan Gov. Abraham Mitra called on Philippine authorities to take charge of the operation so that priority could be given to saving the coral reef rather than the US ship.
Lt. Cmdr. Gregory Favic, US Navy spokesperson, said the American divers were accompanied by nine Philippine Coast Guard personnel aboard the Navy’s BRP Mangyan.
The divers, who took off from Puerto Princesa City in Palawan, were tasked to find the best way to free the trapped US warship, the USS Guardian, which ran aground before dawn on Thursday.
“They also brought with them an oil spill boom just in case there would be an oil leak once the ship is pulled from the grounding site,” Favic said.
“There is no reported oil spill as of now,” he added.
Favic said the two private tugboats contracted by the United States arrived in Tubbataha on Saturday from Subic, Zambales.
“These are special tugboats arranged by the US,” Favic said.
Maj. Oliver Banaria, commander of the Armed Forces of the Philippines’ 6th Civil Relations Group based in Palawan, said that besides the Mangyan, the BRP Rizal and BRP Ismael Lomibao sailed to the area to monitor the situation.
“Our boats are located one to two knots away from the Guardian,” Banaria told the Inquirer over the phone.
Favic said he could not say if the tugboats had started pulling the trapped US ship, saying this was entirely a US operation and he had not received reports from the three Philippine ships in the area.
With the 688-meter ship lying on some 10 meters of coral, environmentalists have expressed fears of more extensive damage from the planned extraction.
The Palawan governor said the Philippine government should take charge of the problem rather than just leaving it to the United States.
“The reef (a heritage site) should be the priority not the ship. They can always build a new boat but it takes a lifetime for the reef to recover. As a responsible country, the US should exert all efforts in reef rehab and conservation efforts as millions of fishermen rely on it to feed their fishing grounds in the surrounding areas. We should take the lead and not allow the US to call the shots,” said Mitra.
“In our view, the Philippine focus should be on protecting our asset—the marine park. The Americans can focus on their asset—the ship. We should certainly help them, but only to make sure that our natural capital is not further damaged. Millions of fishermen count on us to protect their livelihood.”
Malacañang, however, seems to be in no hurry to hold the US Navy accountable for the accident even as a militant group called for an inspection of the ship.
Aquino willing to wait
President Aquino’s deputy spokesperson Abigail Valte said the executive branch would first await the outcome of an investigation into the USS Guardian’s grounding before deciding on the accountability of the ship or its crew for any damage to the reef.
“It’s more prudent to wait for the results of the investigation that will be conducted by the DFA (Department of Foreign Affairs), DND (Department of National Defense) and other agencies, and then come up with recommendations in light of laws that we have in place,” Valte said over government radio.
She said the immediate concern was to extricate the ship “with the least damage” to the marine sanctuary, recognized by Unesco as a World Heritage Site.
The ship, manned by 80 sailors, is part of the US naval fleet stationed in Sasebo, Japan, which docked at the former American naval base in Subic Bay on Sunday for routine refueling, resupply, and rest and recreation. The ship was scheduled to make a brief stop at Puerto Princesa before heading off to its next port call in India when it grazed the reef and got stuck 128 kilometers off Palawan.
The US Navy initially blamed a faulty map used by the minesweeper that misplaced the location of the Tubbataha Reef.
Meanwhile, the militant Bagong Alyansang Makabayan on Sunday pressed the government to assert its sovereignty and ascertain the real status of the ship. It said the Philippines had the right to inspect the ship.
“It is patently embarrassing that the Philippine government does not even want, at this point, to raise the issue of liability of US troops in the destruction of our coral reef. It smacks of puppetry and subservience. Whatever happened to asserting sovereignty?” Bayan secretary general Renato Reyes said.
Reyes also called on the government to stop further port calls by US forces in view of the grounding.
“The frequency of port calls supposedly allowed under the VFA transforms the country into a virtual military base. They come here anytime, roam our waters freely, and engage in unspecified activities,” Reyes said.
“And when incidents happen, like the dumping of toxic waste or the destruction of our coral reef, the US seems to buck any kind of accountability and even disrespects our local authorities. So why should we allow US ships to continue making port calls? Why allow the VFA to continue,” he added. He said the US should pay damages for any destruction to the reef.
The Aquino administration has welcomed the presence of US naval forces in Asia in view of a brewing conflict with regional superpower China over territorial claims in the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea), among them parts of the Spatlys group of islands, which is believed to be rich in oil and gas deposits. With a report from TJ Burgonio