US Navy paid Hawaii P610-M for coral damage

The US Navy paid the State of Hawaii P610-M for about half the damage estimated in the case of the Tubbataha Reef accident, according to the World Wildlife Fund

STRANDED ON THE CORAL. The USS Guardian hit the upper side of Tubbataha's South Atoll on January 17

MANILA, Philippines (UPDATED) – Tubbataha Reef Natural Park is not the only marine protected area where a US Navy ship damaged coral in recent years.

In one particular incident in the past the Americans did pay a substantial amount, including restoration costs, as the crash occurred on US territory.

The USS Navy shelled out US$15 million (about P610-M based on the current exchange rate) to the State of Hawaii when one of its ships ran aground on a reef and destroyed 890 sqm of coral in early 2009, the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) said on Monday, January 28.

“Last week’s grounding of the USS Guardian is but the latest in a long line of scrapes between ships and reefs. On 5 February 2009, the USS Port Royal, a guided missile cruiser, ran aground less than 1 km from the Honolulu International Airport in Hawaii to destroy about 890 square meters of coral reef,” WWF-Philippines noted in a statement.

The conservationist group pointed out that according to official documents and “after much media furor,” the US Navy agreed to pay the State of Hawaii $8.5 million to settle claims over coral reef damage, plus another $6.5 million for reef restoration “including the reattachment of 5,400 coral colonies to expedite regrowth.”

The total amount promised to the Hawaiian authorities reached $15 million. (Read: How much will US pay PH for Tubbataha crash?)

CORAL DAMAGE. Estimate of the area of damaged coral based on aerial surveys compiled by WWF-Philippines

‘Minuscule’ minimum fine compared to Hawaii

Preliminary assessments conducted by WWF-Philippines estimate that the coral damage caused by the USS Guardian will reach at least 1,600 sqm, almost twice the area destroyed 4 years ago in Hawaii.

But under Republic Act 10067 or the Tubbataha Reefs Natural Park Act of 2009, the US Navy is only required to pay a mandatory fine of P12,000 (about $300) per sqm of damaged coral, plus another P12,000 for rehabilitation efforts, the statement added.

This means that the Americans will be charged a minimum penalty of P38.4 million or $960,000, a mere 6.3% of what they had to pay for half of the damage in Hawaii.

Further sanctions imposed by the Tubbataha Protected Area Management Board over unauthorized park entry, non-payment of conservation fees, destruction of resources and the obstruction of law enforcement would increase the total amount, but it would still be “minuscule” compared to Hawaii, WWF said.

“Clearly, parallelisms between the USS Guardian and the USS Port Royal can be made. In the case of the Port Royal, the US Navy did the right thing by working cooperatively to fund the restoration and continued protection of the damaged reef,” commented WWF-Philippines Vice-Chairman and CEO Jose Maria Lorenzo Tan.

Tan added that “[we] hope that the same respect accorded to the people of Hawaii be given to the Philippines. For even though corals, sponges and fish shall one day return to the stricken site – the scars borne by the USS Guardian will take years to heal.”

2005 CRASH. Greenpeace's flagship Rainbow Warrior destroyed about 100 sqm of Tubbataha coral in 2005 but immediately paid the fine. Photo from Greenpeace

Not first crash in Tubbataha

The USS Guardian is not the first ship to have ran aground inside the Tubbataha protected area, which spans 97,000 hectares of pristine coral, a paradise for divers.

On Oct 31, 2005, Greenpeace’s flagship boat Rainbow Warrier crashed onto the reef and destroyed almost 100 sqm of coral.

Unlike the initial reaction from the commanding officer of the USS Guardian, the international conservation group however immediately informed the park management and paid P384,000.

“This is not the first grounding incident in the park – all previous cases paid the appropriate fines for damages. We will not ask for anything more than what the law requires,” park chief superintendent Angelique Songco said in the WWF-Philippines statement.

Songco added that “we wish only for the US Navy to be responsible enough when entering our protected areas.”

More than a week after it crashed into the reef, the USS Guardian is currently waiting to be lifted from a crane and then transferred to a barge to extricate it from the area.

American Ambassador to the Philippines Harry Thomas said on Friday that the US government will address any environmental issues that stem for the incident and reiterated an apology for the grounding of the vessel, while park officials just want the ship to be pulled out as soon and safely as possible.

“Like a ticking taxi meter, the passing of each minute and hour raises the stakes [but] safety must be chosen over speed – hasty efforts might do further harm to the reef,” Tan noted.

PRISTINE REEFS. The coral reefs of Tubbataha are healthy and free from parasites such as the nasty crown-of-thorns starfish that eats polyps, the live organisms that make up the coral. The conservation project was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1993. Photo by Lory Tan/WWF

Toxic substances removed from ship

A US-hired private salvage company has already completed the removal of bulk of the fuel oil and other toxic liquids such as paint, solvents and lubricants that could environmental risks from the vessel, the US Embassy in Manila said on Monday.

In a statement, the embassy confirmed that no oil has leaked since the grounding of the USS Guardian and all the fuel has been safely transferred to the Vos Apollo, a Malaysian tugboat.

“US Navy ship salvage and maritime architecture experts continue to develop the salvage plan and perform work to reinforce the structure of the ship, such as reinforcing the hull with Kevlar lines in an effort to reduce the strain that the ship sustains due to wave action,” the statement added.

Officials in the area are waiting for two heavy ship-borne cranes that will lift the USS Guardian from the reef and are due to arrive from Singapore on Friday, February 1.

The US Navy, the embassy stressed, continues to “assess and manage structural issues and to prepare the USS Guardian to be safely removed, all the while seeking to protect the natural environment of Tubbataha Reef.”

An official probe into the crash by American officers is ongoing.

“All relevant factors will be looked at during the course of the investigation, and the proximate cause of the incident will be made at a later date,” said the statement.

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