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US has not paid Tubbataha fine

DEAD END. The bow of the American warship USS Guardian is lifted above water after it ran aground on an atoll in the Tubbataha Reefs in the Sulu Sea in January last year, damaging the protected World Heritage Site. PHOTO COURTESY OF PHILIPPINE COAST GUARD

MANILA, Philippines—Almost a year after an American warship ran aground on an atoll of the Tubbataha Reefs in the Sulu Sea, the US government has yet to pay the fine imposed by the Philippines for the damage to the environment.

The Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) said Thursday that the fine amounted to P58.3 million, imposed after a determination of the damage caused by the grounding of the USS Guardian on the Tubbataha Reefs, a protected World Heritage Site.

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“According to Director Lim, nothing has been paid yet,” Environment Secretary Ramon Paje said in a text message to the Inquirer, referring to a statement from Theresa Mundita Lim, head of the Biodiversity Management Bureau (formerly the Protected Areas and Wildlife Bureau).

Lim later confirmed the information in a separate text message to the Inquirer.

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No request

A US official, however, said the Philippines had not formally requested settlement of the damage.

“The United States has committed to processing any request by the Philippine government for damage expeditiously,” the official who is privy to the matter said on Thursday. “To my knowledge, a request has not yet been made.”

Paje said it was up to the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) to make arrangements with the US government on the payment of the fine.

“If it were up to the DENR, of course, we would insist that the penalty be imposed and that they pay in cash, regardless of whether it was the US or China or whoever. But this is not a purely environmental matter,” Paje said in telephone interview.

“This is government to government, and I defer to the DFA on this matter,” he added.

The DFA said compensation talks were going on between the Philippines and the United States.

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Raul Hernandez, spokesman for the DFA, told the Inquirer that the Philippine government “is committed and determined to pursue compensation.”

“There has been good progress in the discussion between the Philippines and the United States on the issue of compensation for the damage caused by the Guardian on the Tubbataha Reefs,” he said.

Hernandez, however, declined to give details, citing a case in the Supreme Court.

Cut up

The 68-meter, 1,389-ton minehunter Guardian was sailing to Indonesia after a port call on Subic Bay in Zambales province when it ran aground on the south atoll of the Tubbataha Reefs on Jan. 17, 2013.

Originally, only the bow section of the Avenger-class minehunter rested on the reef, but waves pushed the entire vessel onto the reef, 20 to 30 meters from the edge.

Unable to remove the vessel, which was too damaged to be towed due to multiple hull perforations, the US Navy decided to cut it into sections that were craned off the reef by a salvor ship from Singapore.

The removal of the warship from the reef took 10 weeks, with the last section of the vessel being taken away by the crane ship on March 30, 2013.

Despite that effort, which resulted in the complete loss of the ship, the grounding damaged more than 2,300 square meters of coral reef.

The Tubbataha Management Office fined the US government P58.3 million for the damage but environmental groups went to the Supreme Court asking for a higher penalty and an order for the prosecution of the officers and crew of the Guardian.

Protected site

The Tubbataha Reefs Natural Park lies at the center of the Sulu Sea and protects almost 100,000 hectares of high-quality marine habitats containing three atolls and a large area of deep sea.

Home to whales, dolphins, sharks, turtles and Napoleon wrasse, the park supports more than 350 species of coral and almost 500 species of fish, for which it has been declared a World Heritage Site by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (Unesco).

The reserve also protects one of the few remaining colonies of breeding seabirds in the region, according to Unesco.

Payment demanded

In a statement, Pambansang Lakas ng Kilusang Mamamalakaya ng Pilipinas (Pamalakaya) asked the Aquino administration on Thursday to press for compensation.

Pamalakaya, one of the petitioners in the writ of kalikasan (nature) case in the Supreme Court, said the US government continued to snub the high tribunal’s request to Washington to answer the petition, which named as respondents Scott Swift, commander of the US Seventh Fleet, and Mark Rice, commanding officer of the Guardian.

“The US government must respond to and account for their crimes against the people and the environment. That is simple as ABC, nothing more, nothing less. The incident merits the filing of criminal and other appropriate charges against officers and the 79 crew of the USS Guardian,” Pamalakaya vice chair Salvador France said.

France also said the incident called for the abrogation of the Visiting Forces Agreement and the Mutual Defense Treaty between the Philippines and the United States.

Bring charges

Pamalakaya also urged Justice Secretary Leila de Lima to file criminal and other charges against the officers and crew of the Guardian.

The group said it wrote De Lima last February asking her to bring charges but its request had seen no progress.

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TAGS: environmental issues, Guardian, Philippines, Tubbataha, US
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