MANILA - The Philippine government intends to claim damages from the United States government after its Navy minesweeper ran aground on Tubbataha Reef.
“It’s clearly in the RA (Republic Act), in the Tubbataha law. It’s incumbent upon the government to file such claim,” Department of Transportation and Communications (DOTC) Secretary Jun Abaya told reporters.
A task force headed by the Philippine Coast Guard has been formed to ensure “maritime and environmental protection.” The group will later look into the damage that the incident may have caused on the reef and “address eventual legal issues.”
The priority is to pull the vessel out of the area so that investigators can come in to determine the extent of the damage.
Abaya said no oil spill has been reported so far. The ship will be “defueled” and an oil spill boom will be placed while salvaging operations are being held to “contain and limit whatever damage could be further caused by the salvage operations.”
“Once the ship is pulled out, then assessing the damage to the reef, whatever damage to certain species or habitats or breeding areas will likewise [be] done. The DENR should play a key role here. This would be more of [its] forte. From thereon, probably claims would then follow,” Abaya said.
Asked if the task force will look into the cause of the grounding, Abaya said, “The cause of the grounding will be separate. I think we would be more focused on the damage to the reef and whatever claims. I haven’t read the law but the law doesn’t distinguish whether was this negligence or inadvertence or intentional. What is clear in the law is we could claim for damages, not really looking into as to the intent how it happened.”
Abaya said that the vessel’s current position could prevent further damage to the reef.
“The vessel is currently broached meaning it is parallel to the reef and heavily grounded. Heavily grounded meaning it is quite stable there because both its front part—the bow and the rear part, the stern—are basically in contact with the reef. So the probability of moving and damaging further parts of the reef is basically brought to a minimum,” he said.
An assessment team from the US Navy is already in the country to draw up plans for the salvaging operations.
While the United States will conduct the salvaging, Abaya said Philippine authorities will “vet the plans of the US Navy” and will be informed of “every plan and detail that will be conducted and implemented.”
“Foremost in these salvage operations, meaning getting the ship out of the reef, is that the procedure should cause the minimum of damage to reef or no additional further damage to the reef. I think that is clear to our forces and likewise clear to our counterparts in the US Navy,” Abaya said.