US team arrives to extract warship

By Pia Lee-Brago and Alexis Romero, The Philippine Star

Posted at Jan 21 2013 06:59 AM | Updated as of Jan 21 2013 07:31 PM

Inaccurate navigation data blamed

MANILA, Philippines - Amid concerns over a potential environmental disaster, an assessment team from the United States Navy has arrived in Palawan to work on the extraction of a US warship that ran aground at the protected Tubbataha Reef in the Sulu Sea last week.

Lt. Commander Ralph Kris Hooper, public affairs officer of the US 7th Fleet, said yesterday that the extraction team includes engineers, divers and other essential personnel.

Hooper said the team had arrived in the area where the Navy Avenger-class USS Guardian (MCM 5) got stuck last Thursday, to survey the site and develop a plan to extract the ship with as little environmental impact as possible.

“The weather conditions are challenging but the assessment is ongoing,” Hooper said in an email to The STAR.

Latest reports said huge waves had caused the USS Guardian to move from its original position, complicating extraction efforts.

The change in the ship’s position was feared to have caused more damage to the corals.

Two special tugboats, believed to be civilian, arrived on Saturday in the area to help in the extraction of the minesweeper.

Lt. Cmdr. Gregory Favic, spokesman for the Philippine Navy (PN), said the two tugboats came from Subic and were commissioned by the US. He could not provide details as to how the ship would be extracted.

“Right now three of our ships – BRP Ismael Lomibao, BRP Rizal and BRP Mangyan – are there to provide assistance to the distressed US Navy vessel,” he said.

Favic said a team of American divers and Coast Guard personnel carrying oil spill boom equipment have also arrived in the area. He said no oil spill has been monitored so far.

Earlier, the US Navy 7th Fleet, under whose command the USS Guardian falls, said it would send an assessment team to work on the extraction of the ship.

Swift sanction after probe

The Philippine government wants the stuck US warship extricated immediately and without further damage, and sanctions for possible violation of environmental and maritime laws be enforced swiftly after an investigation.

The Department of National Defense (DND) said it is ready to cooperate with the Senate or any agency that would conduct an inquiry into the maritime accident involving the 1,300-ton, 68-meter long Guardian.

DND spokesman Peter Galvez said such investigation would help shed light on various issues, while at the same time relevant policies would be tackled.

“The department will cooperate in things that will help us resolve and clarify issues,” Galvez told The STAR yesterday.

He said security officials are ready to answer the questions of lawmakers who would look into the incident. He explained that whenever a US ship plans to make a port call in the country, the US embassy forwards a request for passage to the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA), which would refer the request to the DND for comment.

“We will then refer it to the Navy and Air Force so they will be informed that a ship will conduct a visit. Once we get their comments, the request will go back to the DFA,” Galvez said.

He said the DFA issues the final clearance after the DND and the military recommends a favorable action on the request.

“It (Guardian visit) was cleared for port visits. It has been recommended for favorable action since it only involves routine ship replenishment. It was given clearance on our part,” Galvez said.

Hooper said a US Navy investigation to assess the circumstances surrounding the Guardian’s grounding would include information on faulty navigation chart data that might have misplaced the location of Tubbataha Reef.

“While we shouldn’t jump to any conclusions, preliminary findings of a review on Digital Nautical Charts (DNC) contain inaccurate navigation data and may have been a factor in Guardian’s grounding,” he said.

The US Navy officer gave assurance that the cause of the incident would be thoroughly investigated, although he pointed out that it would be premature to speculate about damages or liability at this time.

The USS Guardian had just completed a port call in Subic and was en route to Indonesia and Timor-Leste to participate in a training exercise when it ran aground at Tubbataha Reef, a World Heritage Sites that covers an area of 130,028 hectares.

Lt. Frederick Martin, US Navy 7th Fleet spokesman, gave assurance that the cause of the incident would be thoroughly investigated and a claim for damages would be reviewed if filed.

“It would be premature to speculate about damages and liability at this time. Should a claim for damages be filed, it will be reviewed in accordance with established procedures,” Martin said in an email to The STAR.

Explain presence of US warship

Sen. Francis Escudero demanded answers from the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) on why the warship is here, and that the US government should also be held liable for all the damages it caused to the country.

“Did it have authorized access? Were we informed of its presence in our territory? Why can’t we have official word from concerned authorities about the official status of the ship in our waters?” said Escudero, chairman of the Senate committee on environment and natural resources.

The senator expressed serious concern over the matter, along with Sen. Loren Legarda, who noted a “troubling pattern of environmental assault” from the visits of US Navy ships in the country.

Legarda, chair of the Senate committee on foreign relations, wants the Presidential Commission on the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFACOM) and the Philippine Coast Guard to explain how the US ship was allowed to venture into the marine sanctuary despite the park being considered a “no navigation area.”

Escudero hinted that his committee might launch a probe to uncover possible violations of Philippine and international laws.

The Coast Guard station in Tubbataha Reef said it radioed the Guardian’s unauthorized entry and that it has caused damage to the reef.

DFA spokesman Raul Hernandez could not confirm whether the warship’s entry was authorized or not.

“The reef’s protection status has been severely violated, neglected. We are also looking at what other violations were incurred,” Escudero said.

Pay for damages, restoration costs

If Escudero will have his way, he wants the government to demand not only indemnity for damages, but also for the restoration costs.

“Reefs are grown over centuries, the extent of the damage and what it will leave cannot be quantified in any amount,” he said.

“The US government is in no position right now to act like the Big One in this matter. Our territory, our rights were violated. Therefore, we must demand excellent care when they free the ship from the reef. They already ignored the protection status of the reef once, and here they are again,” he added said.

Accept responsibility

Former senator Juan Miguel Zubiri expects the US military “to readily accept full responsibility” for the damages caused by a US Navy minesweeper.

“We are definitely counting on the US military to promptly acknowledge fault and pay all administrative fines and reparations that will be imposed by Philippine authorities,” said Zubiri, author of the 2009 law establishing the Tubbataha Reef National Park as a marine protected area.

He also called on the US Navy to apologize for dishonoring Philippine law.

Legarda and Zubiri invoked Section 19 of Republic Act 10067 or the TRNP Law, which declares the TRNP as off-limits to navigation.

Fine-tune VFA

Opposition lawmaker and Davao City Rep. Karlo Nograles has urged Congress to revisit and fine-tune the VFA in the wake of the “dangers on the environment” posed by the USS Guardian.

Nograles sought to clarify VFA’s current provisions that relate to the incident in order to prevent a repeat of the same that would endanger the country’s sovereign rights and environmental wealth.

Palawan Gov. Baham Mitra has called for a review of the policy granting access to the country’s navigational routes and sea lanes.

Mitra said the DFA should consult local government units under whose jurisdiction the territorial waters and sea lanes fall.

He believes the rehabilitation of the reef – the source of livelihood of many fishermen – is more important than the grounded ship.

The Communist Party of the Philipines (CPP) has condemned what it called the “incursion” of the US military forces into the Tubbataha Reef. – Christina Mendez, Jess Diaz