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MANILA, Philippines (UPDATED) - A US Navy minesweeper that has been stuck inside Tubbataha Reef Natural Park since last week ignored warnings to avoid the area, a government official said Monday, January 21.
The comments from the marine park superintendent, Angelique Songco, added to growing anger in the country over the incident, for which the US Navy has apologized but may still face fines.
Park rangers radioed the USS Guardian to advise it was nearing the Tubbataha Reef early on Thursday morning, but the ship captain insisted they raise their complaint with the US embassy, Songco told reporters.
She said that shortly after the warning, the 68 m vessel became stuck on part of reef, a UNESCO World Heritage site on the Sulu Sea about 130 km southeast of Palawan.
The site is protected by Philippine law and is off-limits to navigation except for research or tourism purposes approved by the park management.
Songco -- who on Friday filed an official protest over the behavior of the ship's commanding officer -- said it was too early to assess the damage to the corals and the corresponding fines, with the vessel still stuck on the reef and being battered by big waves.
'Too dangerous' to assess damage now
Asked about the incident, Transportation Secretary Joseph Emilio Abaya explained that the government will conduct its own investigation and damage assessment, but only after the USS Guardian is removed from the reef.
"We haven’t conducted any investigation [yet] because clearly the logical step, especially if we want to investigate the damage to the reef, is to first pull out the vessel," Abaya said during in a press conference in Malacañang.
He explained that "it would be too dangerous" to conduct a probe at the same time the boat is being extracted and added that a final plan to salvage the ship should be ready by Tuesday.
The USS Guardian's hull is currently at least 17 m aground, but the fact that after turning 90 degrees the ship is now perpendicular to the reef minimizes the risk of further damage to the coral, Abaya said.
"As compared to a situation where only a portion is attached to the reef while the rest is unattached, by the normal course of action of the waves, any object that is perpendicular to the wave direction will be forced by the wave to eventually be parallel with the wave direction," he explained.
Abaya added that the Americans are cooperating, but the government will still verify any claim made by the US Navy official investigation, particularly the alleged faulty navigation charts.
"I take [that claim] at face value. We weren’t aboard the vessel. Probably they’ve really encountered such problem. But it is best if we verify these stories too and establish our own facts," the DOTC chief said.
Coast Guard to lead fact-finding mission
Before any official investigation, the government ordered the Philippine Coast Guard to lead a fact-finding team to gather information about the incident, Abaya announced.
The team will verify why the USS Guardian did not make a scheduled fuel stop in Puerto Princesa en route to Indonesia and why it ended up entering the marine protected area in spite of warnings by park officials.
Abaya said the task force will continue to inform the public about the situation and address eventual legal issues while the salvage operations are ongoing inside the award-winning conservation project.
Once the ship is extracted, he added, the environmental damage will be determined by experts from the Department of Energy and Natural Resources (DENR), close coordination with the military, park officials and the Americans.
Abaya also noted that President Benigno Aquino III "is mindful of that national treasure that we have [in Tubbataha] and wanted to make sure that we would be proactive on this [and] we minimize damage." - Rappler.com, with reports from Agence France-Presse