President Aquino has ordered authorities to vet the US Navy’s plan to salvage a minesweeper stuck in the Tubbataha Reefs every step of the way to ensure “minimal damage” to the reefs, officials said Monday.
The US Navy has expressed regret, vowing to help the Philippines assess the damage it has made on the World Heritage Site.
“As a protector of the sea and a sailor myself, I greatly regret any damage this incident has caused to the Tubbataha Reefs,” said Vice Adm. Scott Swift, commander of the 7th Fleet.
“We know the significance of the Tubbataha Reefs Natural Park and its importance as a World Heritage Site. Its protection is vital, and we take seriously our obligations to protect and preserve the maritime environment,” Swift said in a statement.
Transportation Secretary Joseph E.A. Abaya, a graduate of the US Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland, said the government would not initiate an investigation until after the USS Guardian had been extracted from the world-renowned natural park, but would file claims for damages.
As a longtime ally of the Philippines, “it goes without saying” that the United States would compensate the Philippines for the damage to the reef. Even so, the Philippines would file claims for damages, Abaya said.
“It’s clearly in the Tubbataha law. It’s incumbent [upon] our government to file for such a claim,” he said.
While it was so “heavily grounded” that it was causing little damage to the reefs, there was a plan to bring in a bigger ship to lift it amid growing concerns about the impact of a longer stay on marine life, Abaya said.
“Well, of course, he is mindful of that national treasure that we have—the very asset of the Tubbataha Reefs—and he wanted to make sure that we would be proactive on this; we minimize damage,” Abaya said of the President.
The US Navy sent 10 American divers to the reef over the weekend to assess the ship’s condition.
As the US assessment team boarded the Guardian on Monday, the government deployed a multiagency task force headed by Rear Adm. Rodolfo Isorena, Coast Guard commandant, to Puerto Princesa, Palawan, to set up a coordinating post, Abaya said.
The task force would liaise with the US Navy for the salvage operations and prepare maritime environmental protection of the reef, he said.
“We should have close coordination with the Americans that we shouldn’t just allow them to conduct their salvage operations on their own. The plan should be vetted, the plan should be concurred in, and likewise to keep him (the President) informed and the public informed,” Abaya said in Malacañang.
“We will likewise be abreast of every plan and detail that will be conducted and implemented. Foremost in these salvage operations, getting the ship out of the reef, is that the procedure should cause a minimum of damage to the reef or no additional further damage to the reef. I think that is clear to our forces and likewise clear to our counterparts in the US Navy,” he added.
Adm. Thomas Carney, commander of Task Force 73 of the US Navy, arrived on Sunday night in Puerto Princesa from Singapore to call the shots for the US Navy vessels. He would meet with Philippine officials “to have a unified effort,” Abaya said.
The ship is part of the US naval fleet stationed in Japan, which docked at the former American naval base in Subic Bay on Sunday for routine refueling, resupply and rest and recreation.
It 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.
Located in the Sulu Sea, the Tubbataha Reefs Natural Marine Park is a protected maritime sanctuary. The area is considered the best dive spot in the Philippines. Over 1,000 species of fish and other marine life inhabit the area, considered endangered.
The US Navy earlier said a faulty navigation system, which misplaced the reef on its map, could have caused the grounding, but its investigation of the incident continues. Philippine authorities said the ship shunned warnings from park rangers about their wrong heading.
US authorities remained silent on who could be held accountable for the incident.
The 7th Fleet said “no one is on board” the ship, still stuck on the reef 128 kilometers off Palawan, while support vessels were around the area as efforts to salvage the vessel continue. With none injured, the Guardian’s 79 crew members were earlier evacuated.
“As of Jan. 20 the condition of the Guardian has not changed; the ship is still grounded with no one on board and there are no traces of an oil slick in the area,” the fleet said.
Abaya said the Coast Guard had formed a fact-finding body to gather the “necessary facts” on the grounding, but the investigation would not begin until after the ship had been salvaged.
To investigate the damage to the reef, the first logical step was to “pull out the vessel,” said Abaya, a former naval officer before he ran for a seat in the House of Representatives and joined the Aquino Cabinet.
“It would be too dangerous if you investigate while, at the same time, they’re pulling out the vessel. So the logical sequencing is to pull out the vessel first, take it out of danger, and likewise make safe the area for our personnel to come in and investigate the damage to the reef,” he said.
The ship’s requests for port calls in Subic and Puerto Princesa were granted, Secretary Edwin Lacierda said, quoting Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin.
So far, the ship was parallel to the reef and heavily grounded, Abaya said. “Heavily grounded, meaning it is quite stable there because both its front part, the bow, and the rear part, the stern, are basically in contact with the reef. So the probability of moving and damaging further parts of the reef is basically brought to a minimum,” he said.
According to Abaya, Commodore Joseph Peña of the Naval Forces West has mentioned the possibility of bringing in a heavy-lifting ship with a 1,000-ton capacity crane to lift USS Guardian and loading it on another ship.
A marine pollution vessel AE-891 arrived at the Tubbataha Reefs on Sunday night, according to Coast Guard spokesperson Armand Balilo.
Militant groups scored the government’s sluggish and soft stance toward the United States.
“It is patently embarrassing that the PH 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?” said Renato Reyes Jr., secretary general of Bagong Alyansang Makabayan. With reports from Tarra Quismundo and Paolo G. Montecillo