Damaged US warship sinking into Sulu Sea
MANILA, Philippines - An environmental disaster looms at one of the nation’s five World Heritage Sites as a freshly refueled US Navy minesweeper has started sinking in waters around Tubbataha Reef.
Informed sources told The STAR yesterday that the 1,300-ton, 68-meter-long USS Guardian, which ran aground on the reef at around 2 a.m. Thursday, had started taking in water and sinking, prompting 72 of the 79 crew to abandon ship. No injuries were reported.
The seven who remained aboard, including the commanding and executive officers, would try to free the ship from the reef with minimal environmental impact, according to a statement from the US Navy’s 7th Fleet.
The cause of the grounding is still under investigation.
Philippine officials said the weather was choppy yesterday with strong winds and rough seas. The sources, who asked not to be named, said the weather added to the difficulty of freeing the Avenger-class ship, which incurred major damage when it struck the reef.
The Guardian is forward-deployed to Sasebo, Japan. Eight Filipino-Americans are among the crew.
The Tubbataha Reefs Natural Marine Park in the Sulu Sea, one of the country’s most extensive coral networks, is a protected area. Swimming or diving in the park requires a special permit from the Protected Areas and Wildlife Bureau (PAWB) of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources.
An initial visual inspection showed that the Guardian damaged at least 10 meters of the reef, according to the World Wide Fund for Nature Philippines.
Aerial photographs provided by the Philippine military showed the ship’s bow sitting atop corals in shallow turquoise waters, with the stern floating in the deep blue waters.
No oil leaks were reported, but environment groups expressed concern about the ship’s fuel. The Guardian was on its way to Puerto Princesa in Palawan after routine refueling and supply replenishment in Subic Bay last Sunday when it ran aground.
The ship crew reportedly declined assistance from the Philippine Navy, leaving the listing ship only upon the arrival of a US-chartered civilian vessel, the MV C-Champion, at around 10 a.m. yesterday.
Maj. Oliver Banaria, commander of the Palawan-based 6th Civil Relations Group of the Armed Forces of the Philippines, said the Guardian informed local counterparts about the mishap.
Angelique Songco, head of the government’s Protected Area Management Board, said it was unclear how much of the reef was damaged. She said park rangers were not allowed to board the ship for inspection and were instead told to contact the US embassy in Manila. Their radio calls to the ship were ignored, she said.
A US Navy statement said that “the government of the Philippines was promptly informed of the incident and is being updated regularly.”
P12K per square meter
In 2005, environmental group Greenpeace was fined almost $7,000 after its flagship struck a reef in the same area.
PAWB Director Theresa Mundita Lim said the US must be made to pay for damage to the reef. She estimated the cost at P12,000 per square meter of damaged coral.
The Philippine Coast Guard sent the BRP Corregidor, a marine environment protection vessel, to extend assistance to the Guardian. A Navy control craft, the BRP Ismael Lomibao, was also deployed from Puerto Princesa to assist the distressed ship.
In a statement, Coast Guard chief Rear Admiral Rodolfo Isorena said they sent two rescue teams from the Special Operations Group, two teams from the Marine Environmental Protection Command, and a medical team to the site of the accident.
The Coast Guard detachment in Tubbataha established radio contact with the Guardian and informed the ship that ithad violated Republic Act 10067, the 2009 law governing the Tubbataha marine park, for unauthorized entry and damage to the reef.
Department of Foreign Affairs spokesperson Raul Hernandez said director Edilberto Adan of the Presidential Commission on the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFACom) was in touch with the US embassy and the Tubbataha Management Office.
“There’s an investigation that would be undertaken by appropriate agencies,” Hernandez said. “It’s difficult to say whether this was authorized or not.”
He said the government was assessing “the damage and legal violation on the part of that ship.”
Defense cooperation between the Philippines and the United States has intensified in recent years amid China’s increasingly assertive actions to support its maritime territorial claims in the region.
During a standoff last year in Panatag or Scarborough Shoal off Zambales between Philippine and Chinese ships, nuclear-powered US submarines surfaced in Subic.
The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) has designated five sites in the country as World Heritage Sites: Tubbataha, cultural houses in the town of Vigan in Ilocos Sur, the Puerto Princesa SubterraneanRiver National Park in Palawan, the Rice Terraces in the Cordilleras, and agrouping of baroque churches – San Agustin in Manila, Miag-ao in Iloilo, Paoay in Ilocos Norte and Santa Maria in Ilocos Sur.
Tubbataha, which covers 130,028 hectares, was designated a World Heritage Site in 1993.
Senators Loren Legarda and Francis Pangilinan expressed concern about the incident, which came on the heels of the discovery of a US unmanned aerial vehicle floating in Philippine waters. US officials said the drone came from Guam.
Sen. Panfilo Lacson, who chairs the chamber’s committee on national defense and security, said a closer examination of the incident was needed.
The left-leaning Bagong Alyansang Makabayan said the ship mishap raised questions about the unhampered entry and presence of US forces in the country under the VFA.
“Our officials should have the political will to decisively make (the Americans)accountable,” said Bayan secretary general Renato Reyes. “The disrespect by the US toward Tubbataha authorities should be looked into as well.”
The Pambansang Lakas ng Kilusang Mamamalakaya ng Pilipinas and Kalikasan PNE revived calls for the abrogation of the VFA, calling the ship mishap “yet another manifestation of US intervention at the expense of our national sovereignty and patrimony, as well as our people’s livelihood and marine environment.”
– With Evelyn Macairan, Pia Lee-Brago, Marvin Sy, Ding Cervantes, Artemio Dumlao, AP