The penalty for the damage caused to the Tubbataha Reefs by a US Navy minesweeper is non-negotiable, Transportation Secretary Joseph E.A. Abaya said Sunday.
But to be able to conduct a thorough investigation, the Philippine government should have access to the commanding officer and crew of the USS Guardian which has been stuck in the marine park since Jan. 17, Abaya said.
“Well, there are laws in place. I don’t think this is subject to tawaran (haggling) or negotiation. I heard of the figure of $300 [fine] per square meter. If that is really engraved in the law then there’s no room for negotiation whether this is high or low,” he told reporters at the Ninoy Aquino International Airport.
Abaya said he had yet to look into whether there would be a need to impose an additional fine for the damage left by the minesweeper on the world-renowned reefs pending its extrication.
On the sidelines of the World Economic Forum in Switzerland, President Aquino told reporters the US Navy would be held liable and be made to pay for the damage.
The 63-meter, 1,300-ton ship, part of the US naval fleet stationed in Japan, docked at the former American naval base in Subic Bay on Jan. 12 for routine refueling, resupply and rest and recreation.
It was scheduled to make a brief stop at Puerto Princesa City before heading off to its next port of call in India when it grazed the reef and got stuck 128 kilometers off Palawan 11 days ago.
The US Navy said a faulty navigational map or possible errors in the USS Guardian’s navigational system had caused it to stray into a protected marine area.
US officials have apologized for the accident and the damage it has caused to the Tubbataha Reefs Natural Park, a Unesco World Heritage Site in the Sulu Sea.
Two ships from Singapore are due to arrive this week or the next to extricate the grounded ship from the reef.
This early, Abaya stressed the need for Philippine investigators’ free access to the commanding officer and crew of the grounded ship to get a full picture of what happened.
“So we are conducting our investigation. It has been done since Day 1 and, necessarily, to have a thorough and complete investigation is we should have access to the duty personnel, the duty officer, and even the commanding officer to at least get a chance to hear them out on what actually happened so we could complete the picture of what transpired,” he said.
But this has to be coordinated through the Department of Foreign Affairs, Abaya said.
“I have mentioned again to Secretary (Albert) del Rosario that that is an essential ingredient of the investigation,” he said.
Abaya reiterated that the government would insist on vetting the US Navy’s operation to salvage the ship.
“The least we would want is a scenario where they go about their way without us knowing about it. The President has strictly instructed us that any salvage plan should be vetted by the Philippine side and should be approved by the Philippine side,” he said.
So far, the general feedback from environmental groups in the area was that the US Navy has been “transparent,” he said.
“Of course, not all information, if they consider it confidential, is readily shared. But at least for public consumption and for planning purposes, our counterparts from the American side have been cooperating,” he said.