The Philippines has fined the US Navy for “unauthorized entry” after an American minesweeper went aground on Tubbataha Reefs Natural Park in the Sulu Sea.
The Tubbataha Protected Area Management Board, of which WWF-Philippines is a member, was poised to send out the Notice of Violation informing the US government of its transgressions, including penalties, on Tuesday afternoon, said Jose Ma. Lorenzo Tan, WWF-Philippines vice chairman and chief executive officer.
“The Notice of Violation basically includes the standard penalties,” including the P25,000 fine for each square meter of affected coral provided for under the law, Tan said.
Earlier, Tubbataha park superintendent Angelique Songco said the US government would also face administrative fines from P100,000 to P300,000 for its unauthorized entry to the protected area.
The 68-meter USS Guardian had been stuck in Tubbataha Reefs, a Unesco World Heritage Site, since Jan. 17.
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 of call in India when it grazed the reef and got stuck 128 kilometers off Palawan.
Songco said the US crew had not asked for permission from park managers to enter the marine sanctuary, as mandated under Republic Act No. 10067, or the Tubbataha Reefs Natural Park Act of 2009.
On top of that, she said the US government might be asked to pay between P300,000 and P1 million in “reparations” to the government for lost income from the impact of the accident on fish density.
But Tan said it would only be possible to arrive at an estimate of the damage until after the USS Guardian had been extricated from the reef.
“We cannot say how much was damaged until after the ship has been removed. In fact, we may not be able to do that until the northeast monsoon has passed,” he said, referring to cold winds blowing in from Siberia.
Tan said it may take weeks for Philippine authorities to arrive at a computation of the fines to be imposed on the US Navy.
“It’s difficult to make any estimates or projections because the damage could take a turn for the worse every day. One day it could be P10 million, then P20 million the next day,” he said.
Even so, officials formally informed the US Navy about the specific violations it committed.
The commander of the US Navy’s 7th Fleet, Vice Admiral Scott Swift, apologized for the incident in a statement from Japan on Sunday.
Apologies not enough
Sen. Francis Pangilinan said the US government was liable for damages.
“Apologies are not enough. The damage has been done. Every day the USS Guardian sits on top of our protected reefs is a day too late as far as the damage being done is concerned. We have laws that explicitly express accountability on persons or entities found to have caused damage to the Tubbataha reef,” he said in a statement.
Palawan Gov. Abraham Mitra has urged the US Navy to plan and implement the retrieval of the USS Guardian with utmost care to avoid further damage to the reefs.
“My advice to them is please lift the boat and not drag it. They could probably use a crane,” Mitra said in a phone interview.
Mitra said he had been advised by a US Navy officer that the operation could take five to 10 days to complete. “They told me it depends on the weather, but I told them that rescue operations should be weatherproof,” said Mitra.
“The park has suffered physical damage, the extent of which cannot be accurately estimated at this time,” said Mitra who noted that the board would issue a second formal notice to determine how much fines must be paid.
Filipino divers arrived Tuesday morning in Tubbataha Reefs to assess the damage, Malacañang said Tuesday.
Both the Philippine Navy and US Navy have dispatched teams to conduct an assessment of the damage.
Before the US Navy would begin salvaging the USS Guardian, divers from the Philippine Coast Guard and Navy would go down the reef for a “baseline assessment,” said Undersecretary Abigail Valte, deputy presidential spokesperson.
“First, the US side will be assessing if there is any damage to the ship. On our part, before the actual salvage operation begins, Coast Guard and Navy divers will go down to gather information for a baseline assessment,” she said in a briefing.
The objectives were to gather data for baseline assessment and check any indication of oil spill, but so far there was no leak from the ship, Valte said.
After the USS Guardian shall have been salvaged, the divers would go down again “to gather more data” and compare the impact of the grounding before and after extrication, she said.
Transportation Secretary Joseph E.A. Abaya said on Monday the investigation of the grounding would not begin until after the ship had been salvaged. With a report from AFP