A year later, US yet to pay P58-M Tubbataha fine

The US embassy in Manila has reportedly not commented either on a related case, despite a letter from the Supreme Court

GROUNDED SHIP. On January 17, 2013, the USS Guardian ran aground and damaged the Tubbataha Reef, a UNESCO World Heritage site. File photo courtesy of AFP Wescom

MANILA, Philippines – Two weeks before the anniversary of the grounding of a US Navy ship in Tubbataha Reefs Natural Park, the United States government has failed to pay the fine for the damage to the UNESCO World Heritage Site.

According to Protected Areas and Wildlife Bureau (PAWB) chief Theresa Mundita Lim, the US has not yet paid the P58 million (US$1.3 million) compensation for the damage wreaked by the ship USS Guardian when it crashed into the reefs on Jan 17, 2013.

The Tubbataha Reefs in the Sulu Sea is a protected area and one of the world’s most important marine sanctuaries. Its rich biodiversity has led environmentalists to call it the “crown jewel” of Philippine seas and an underwater Serengeti.

The USS Guardian damaged around 2,345.67 square meters of the reef, according to Tubbataha Reefs Park Superintendent Angelique Songco. 

The ship was stuck in the marine park for 10 weeks until the last piece was removed by salvage teams on March 30, 2013.

But the damage remains. In June, an assessment team of divers from the Tubbataha Management Office, the Department of Science and Technology, and the Worldwide Fund for Nature saw pulverized corals, scarred reefs, and a significant decrease in fish inhabiting the grounding sites.

Pursuing compensation

Two avenues are now being pursued by various groups to demand that the US government pay the fine. 

A case was filed before the Supreme Court in April 2013 by environmentalists, lawyers, and two Catholic bishops demanding compensation and the prosecution of two US Navy officials and the crew of the USS Guardian

The Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) is also in talks with the US government on the issue, DFA spokesman Raul Hernandez told Rappler.

“There has been good progress in the discussion between the Philippines and the US on the issue of compensation….  The department is committed and determined to pursue compensation.”

However, due to the pending case with the Supreme Court, he refrained from making any further comment.

The PAWB is also leaving the matter to the DFA but gave assurances that “we are on hand to provide the technical and policy advice as needed.”

WHAT'S AT STAKE. The Tubbataha Reef is home to countless fish and corals. Photo by Gregg Yan

Last June, the Supreme Court sent the US embassy a letter requesting for a comment on the filed petition. According to reports, the embassy has yet to respond. The US ambassador at the time was Harry Thomas Jr. He has been replaced by Ambassador Philip Goldberg.

So far, the US has only assisted in assessing the damage and has not yet contributed to rehabiliation efforts, Lim told Rappler in a text message.

“But they have supported some of our protection efforts through their support [for] the Coral Triangle Initiative Parternship Program,” she added.

Ready to pay?

But it was the US themselves who said a month after the grounding that they were ready to compensate the Philippines for the damage.

“In view of damage caused by the USS Guardian accident at Tubbataha Reef, the United States has expressed its regrets and is prepared to provide appropriate compensation to the Republic of the Philippines,” said an official statement issued on February 3, 2013.

A day after the statement was released, the US Navy fired 4 officers for failing to “adhere to standard US Navy navigation procedures.” According to Navytimes.com, the relieved officers included commanding officer Lt Mark Rice, one of the respondents to the case filed before the Supreme Court.

In June 2013, 6 months after the grounding, the US Navy released their report on the incident, a report that was mum on compensation. Instead, it detailed plans to improve systems and the training of personnel after concluding that “lack of leadership led to increased navigational risk to the ship and her crew.” 

Pamalakaya, one of the petitioners who filed the SC case, said on Thursday, January 2, that other than environmental damage, the grounding has far-reaching consequences to the livelihood of Filipino fishermen.

“It will take one year for a millimeter of mostly hard corals in Tubbataha’s South Section to go back to its sound condition and it will take 250 years for a meter of coral to mature,” the group said.

The marine park helps maintain the average annual production of 800,000 metric tons of fish in the Sulu Sea and West Palawan Sea. It serves as breeding ground for 1,500 fish species and is home to 360 species of corals.

Only 4 months after the US Navy ship grounding, a Chinese vessel crashed into the Tubbataha reefs, damaging another 3,902 square meters of corals. – Rappler.com

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