MANILA, Philippines—Visiting members of the United States House of Representatives reiterated their country’s regrets for the grounding of the USS Guardian on the protected Tubbataha Reef, an official of the US Embassy in Manila said Wednesday.
Brian Goldbeck, the Embassy’s Chargé d’ Affaires, shared this on his Twitter account Wednesday morning, recounting the visit of US lawmakers headed by US Congress foreign affairs committee chairman Ed Royce and five of his Capitol Hill colleagues on Tuesday afternoon.
“In Royce meeting with Speaker (Feliciano Belmonte) plus 11 members, [US lawmakers] expressed regrets re Guardian incident, commitment to protect environment and close cooperation with the Philippine government,” Goldbeck said in his account (@USEmbManilaNo2).
US Ambassador to the Philippines Harry Thomas Jr. and top officials of the US Navy’s 7th Fleet had apologized for the incident, saying the US is aware of the importance of Tubbataha’s unique environment.
The US Congress delegation visited the Philippine House of Representatives on Tuesday after a meeting with Cabinet secretaries at the Department of Foreign Affairs, where the two parties are known to have had no discussion of the incident.
US Representatives Gregory Meeks, Vern Buchanan, Eliot Engel, Matthew James Salmon and Thomas Anthony Marino joined the delegation in the three-day visit, the first three known to be members of the US Congress’ environmental caucus.
DFA officials had confirmed that the two sides virtually had no discussion of the US Navy ship accident as talks focused on expanding Philippine-US defense and economic cooperation and Philippine gains in the areas of preventing human trafficking and human rights violations and climate change mitigation.
Environment Secretary Ramon Paje was known to have briefly mentioned the incident but “there was not much of a discussion” of the incident, said Philippine Ambassador to the United States Jose Cuisia.
Militant umbrella group Bagong Alyansang Makabayan, which has long been opposed to US presence in the Philippines, said it was “mind-boggling” why the reef accident was not taken up in Tuesday’s DFA meeting.
“The PH government should have impressed upon the US congressional delegation that we are dead serious in seeking damage claims for Tubbataha. The PH government should have impressed upon the US congressional delegation that the initial attitude of the officers and crew of the USS Guardian was unacceptable,” said Bayan Secretary General Renato Reyes Jr. in a statement.
Bayan is among groups pressing for US accountability, criticizing why the crew of the USS Guardian was allowed to leave the ship and sail off to Japan base without first facing liability for the accident.
The USS Guardian, a minesweeper, rammed into Tubbataha Reef on the morning of Jan. 17 following a refuel and re-supply port call in Subic. The US Navy has cited faulty navigational equipment as the cause of the accident. Concerned groups have called the incident an environmental disaster.
Philippine and US authorities are now working on the delicate removal of the warship from the marine sanctuary without causing further damage to the Unesco World Heritage Site in the Sulu Sea. Since its grounding two weeks ago, the USS Guardian has reportedly damaged some 1,500 square meters of sensitive coral habitat in the protected reef.