MANILA, Philippines - The United States could end up being fined $300 per square meter of coral reef damaged in a Philippine World Heritage Site.
President Aquino had said that the US Navy must pay for the damage caused by the grounding of one of its warships in Tubbataha Reef.
Deputy presidential spokesperson Abigail Valte said yesterday there was still no full assessment of the damage caused by the minesweeper USS Guardian in the protected reef in the Sulu Sea.
But she said that based on existing laws, the US Navy must pay $300 per square meter of the area destroyed.
An initial baseline assessment showed that approximately 1,000 square meters of corals were severely damaged when the US warship ran aground in the Tubbataha Reef after making a port call at Puerto Princesa in Palawan last Jan. 17.
"But the ship has yet to be removed so that assessment may change after the vessel itself is extricated. As far as I know, the fine stands at $300 per square meter. So we don’t know the final figure, those are initial figures only,” Valte said.
Transportation Secretary Joseph Emilio Abaya, who was tasked by the President to investigate the incident, said the siphoning of some 15,000 gallons of fuel from the USS Guardian has been completed in preparation for the warship’s removal from the coral reefs.
“In order to minimize damage to the reef they have to lift the vessel and board this on another vessel,” Abaya told reporters at the Ninoy Aquino International Airport Terminal 2 where he welcomed the President from Davos, Switzerland.
On the sidelines of the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos, Aquino said the probe on the Tubbataha Reef would continue despite an apology from the US. He said the apology does not exempt them from having to comply with Philippine laws.
Asked to comment on remarks that the amount to be slapped on the US Navy was too small, Abaya said: “Well, there are laws in place. I don’t think this is subject of ‘tawaran’ (haggling) or negotiation. I heard of the figure of $300 per square meter. If that is really in the law then there’s no room for negotiation whether this is high or low,” he said.
He added he could not make a deadline as to when the US vessel could be extricated from the reef.
"What’s important is for them to finish their assessment then they’ll come up with a salvage plan,” he said.
Abaya said the President gave strict instructions to monitor the situation in Tubbataha Reef.
"The least we would want is a scenario where they go about their ways without us knowing,” he said.
The US Navy has tapped a Singapore-based company to lift the Guardian to prevent further damage to the reef. The teams tasked to extricate the ship are now waiting for the heavy lift crane mounted on a ship to arrive in the area. The equipment is expected to arrive this week.
Meanwhile, the grounding of USS Guardian in Tubbataha Reef has emphasized the importance of coordination among allied forces, a military official said yesterday.
Maj. Oliver Banaria, chief of the Palawan-based 6th Civil Relations Group, said movements of foreign vessels in the country should be definite and should not have grey areas so these would not be questioned.
"Grey areas should be avoided so there would be no questions on why it was there," he added.
He said that while there have been notions there was “miscoordination” during the incident, everything will depend on the results of the probe being conducted by the government.
Banaria said the military is ready to work with the agencies that will look into the incident.
The 1,300-ton, 68-meter-long Guardian has been stuck at the Tubbataha Reef’s south atoll since Jan. 17, raising concerns about its possible impact on natural resources in the area.
The US warship was reportedly on its way to Puerto Princesa in Palawan after a port call and supply replenishment in Subic Bay when the incident happened.
Tubbataha, which covers 130,028 hectares, was named a World Heritage Site by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization in 1993.
Because of its extensive coral network, the Tubbataha Reefs Natural Marine Park in the Sulu Sea has been declared a protected area.
The US Navy has blamed “faulty navigation chart data” for the incident.
US Ambassador to the Philippines Harry Thomas Jr. has expressed regret over the incident and promised to help in removing the ship as expeditiously as possible.
“This was an unfortunate accident, and I recognize the legitimate concerns over the damage caused to a unique and precious wonder of nature, internationally recognized for its beauty and biological diversity,” Thomas said in a statement issued last week.