The US Navy is not yet off the hook in the Tubbataha Reef, as Sen. Loren Legarda will not allow it to sail away even after it pays $1.4 million for the damage the grounding of the USS Guardian has caused to the protected marine park in the Sulu Sea.
In a statement, Legarda, a reelectionist candidate on President Aquino’s senatorial ticket in next month’s midterm elections, said the Department of Justice (DOJ) must fully assess how much penalty the US Navy should pay for the damage to the reef.
A principal author of the Tubbataha Reefs Natural Park Act of 2009, former Sen. Jamby Madrigal, said the government should have imposed higher penalties on the US Navy. Madrigal is trying to regain her Senate seat by running also as a candidate on the administration’s senatorial team.
“The $1.4 million is loose change compared to the long-term damage to the reef caused by the USS Guardian. While there is a set formula for computing [the] damage under the law, I believe the Philippine government should impose more by way of exemplary damages,” she said.
But Malacañang is satisfied with the $1.4-million fine announced by the marine park authorities.
President Aquino’s deputy spokesperson, Abigail Valte, pointed out that the assessment was in accordance with the Tubbataha law.
Valte said a diplomatic protest was unnecessary, as the US government had cooperated and helped in the Philippine investigation and promised to pay compensation for the damage and assist in the reef’s rehabilitation.
The US Navy has relieved the ship’s commanding officer, Lt. Cmdr. Mark Rice, as well as the executive officer and navigator, the assistant navigator and the officer of the deck pending a separate US investigation of the grounding.
Not so fast
Legarda’s statement came after the Tubbataha Management Office announced that it would fine the US Navy $1.4 million, or P60 million, an amount based solely on the schedule of penalties set by Republic Act No. 10067, or the Tubbataha Reefs Natural Park Act of 2009, which pegged the fine at about $600, or P24,000, for every square meter of damaged reef.
But Legarda, head of the Senate environmental committee, said determining the US Navy’s accountability was not be limited to assessing the damage according to the Tubbataha law.
“The DOJ is tasked under the law to conduct a preliminary investigation and prosecute violations of the law,” Legarda said.
“We cannot just simply identify a penalty based on the estimated damage on the reef. There has to be a determination of the range of violations, and the damages and only then can penalties be assessed. We have other laws that may have been violated as well; and clearly, RA 10067 does not preclude the filing of cases on the basis of other laws that may have been violated. All these will have to be considered by the appropriate bodies.”
Legarda said the Tubbataha Protected Area Management Board (TPAMB) had been tasked with “exercising quasi-judicial functions for adjudicating cases of violations of the act and impose penalties.”
“How was the $1.4 million assessed and who made the assessment? What violations have been determined to merit [that] penalty? Is the penalty enough given the range of violations?” she asked.
Madrigal said the Tubbataha law was enacted to protect the Unesco World Heritage site, famous the world over for its magnificent corals and marine life and, according to international divers, rivals Australia’s Great Barrier Reef.
“It would take years to restore a damaged reef and displaced marine animals. We should prevent this from happening again. Offenders must be taught hard lessons,” she said.
Experts placed the damage caused by the USS Guardian to the reef at 2,345.67 square meters, much lower than the initial estimate of 4,000 sqm, which would have pushed the fine to $5 million, or P200 million.
The law prescribes a fine of $600, or P24,000, for every square meter of damaged reef plus another $600 for every square meter for rehabilitation.
Not one cent more
The fine was determined after a team of divers and researchers from the Tubbataha Management Office and the World Wide Fund for Nature-Philippines inspected the reef and determined the extent of the damage caused by the grounding of the 69-m, 1,600-ton minesweeper.
The marine park office said it would not ask for more than $1.4 million.
“[The fine of] $1.4 million is but a slap on the wrist, as the salvage operation has been estimated to cost close to $45 million,” Tubbataha park superintendent Angelique Songco said in a statement.
“However, we respect the rule of law and this is the fine stipulated. The Tubbataha Management Office will not ask for anything more,” Songco said.
Songco earlier told the news agency Agence France-Presse that she was “not worried about criticism (for the small amount).”
“We are not trying to put one over them and we hope they will not do the same with us,” she said. “We don’t want to be dishonest. It is just a simple process—measure it correctly and then they pay. That is all. It is very straightforward.”
The USS Guardian ran aground on the reef on Jan. 17 while sailing to Indonesia.
To save the reef from further damage, the US Navy hired a Singapore-based salvor company to cut up the ship and remove it piece by piece.
After 10 weeks, the salvage operation was completed on March 31.—With reports from DJ Yap and TJ Burgonio