Now that the last piece of the US Navy minesweeper that ran aground on Tubbataha Reef has been removed, the real test of Philippine political will begins: how to extract payment from the United States for the extensive damage the USS Guardian has inflicted on the Unesco World Heritage site.
Appropriate words are being spoken at the moment. “We maintain there must be accountability and we will enforce our existing laws,” said Herminio Coloma, a spokesman for President Aquino. Also, “We will adopt needed measures to prevent a repetition [of the incident].”
Under the law covering the reef—Republic Act 10067 or the Tubbataha Reefs Natural Park Act of 2009—the fine is about $300 or P12,000 per square meter, plus another $300 or so per square meter for rehabilitation efforts. The USS Guardian is said to have damaged about 4,000 square meters (43,055 square feet) of the reef. That should mean that the total fines may exceed $5 million or P200 million.
For the 10 weeks that the minesweeper was stuck in the marine park, the United States has repeatedly apologized for the accident. What it hasn’t done is adequately explain how the USS Guardian, a state-of-the-art vessel with sophisticated equipment, ended up straying off its course and knifing its way into waters that have long been declared protected and off-limits to any vessel, unless permission has been granted by park authorities.
The Aquino administration has been no less forthcoming, emphatic and insistent on the accountability of the United States to pay for the environmental damage to the reef, but quite coy about demanding a public explanation for the ship’s unwarranted presence in the area. That reticence has only fed much speculation and conjecture. Was the USS Guardian on some clandestine mission related to the PH-US Visiting Forces Agreement? Did the minesweeper see the protected area as a convenient passageway to avoid detection, given the remoteness of Tubbataha off the Sulu Sea? What kind of communication did it maintain with Philippine maritime authorities as it entered the country’s waters?
And, given its culpability in the accident, should the US Navy still be party to the assessment about to be conducted by the Tubbataha Management Office on the extent of the damage to the coral reef?
Activist leaders representing fisherfolk and environmental groups say this is a recipe for a biased judgment. “If we want to have a credible assessment on the impact and damage caused by the grounding of USS Guardian on the Unesco-declared heritage site, the very first politically correct act to do is to take the US out of the assessment,” declared Fernando Hicap, vice chair of the party-list group Anakpawis, and Salvador France, vice chair of Pamalakaya.
The Tubbataha Management Office has said that, apart from the US Navy, representatives of the University of the Philippines-Marine Science Institute will join the assessment. An additional group of scientists and experts—to be funded by the Bureau of Aquatic Resources, Department of Science and Technology, and World Wide Fund for Nature—will also visit the site to establish a monitoring protocol and draw up a restoration plan, according to Tubbataha Park superintendent Angelique Songco.
Well and good. But the only way any final result of the work of the assessment team will be accepted by the public is when every step of the assessment and restoration project is conducted with transparency, scientific rigor, and adherence to pertinent Philippine laws. The project should not end with the mere rehabilitation of the area damaged by the USS Guardian, or even with the claim of payment from the United States, which the Philippine government should pursue vigorously.
“We will not ask for anything more than what the law requires,” said Songco. “We wish only for the US Navy to be responsible enough when entering our protected areas.”
The Philippines can’t live on wishing, however. It needs to enforce its laws governing conduct by foreign vessels in its territorial waters, as well as regulations on environmental protection. The best deterrent to a repetition of the grounding incident is to make sure that other countries recognize that the Philippines takes its laws seriously, and will not let anyone—even an ally like the United States—off easy for any act of negligence that damages its ecological heritage. The expedient payment for such damage, as mandated by Republic Act 10067, is only fair and just.