MANILA, Philippines – A commander of the United States Navy on Monday expressed regret over the grounding of the USS Guardian last week, which damaged the protected Tubbataha Reef in the Sulu Sea.
In a statement, U.S. 7th Fleet Commander Vice Admiral Scott Swift said he “greatly regret(s) any damage this incident has caused to the Tubbataha Reef.”
The USS Guardian had come from a port call in Subic Bay and was on its way to Indonesia when it ran aground the Tubbataha Reef early morning Thursday. At least 10 meters of the coral reef have been damaged.
“We know the significance of the Tubbataha Reefs Natural Park and its importance as a World heritage Site. Its protection is vital, and we take seriously our obligations to protect and preserve the maritime environment,” Swift said.
Swift said Rear Adm. Thomas Carney will take over as the on-scene commander on January 21 to oversee the Guardian recovery operations.
Carney, the Commander of Logistics Group in Western Pacific, will embark the destroyer USS Mustin. Along with other US Navy vessels, the USS Mustin “is focused on preventing any further environmental damage to the reef and surrounding marine environment.”
The U.S. Navy said that there has been no change on the Guardian’s condition and there are no traces of an oil slick in the area.
“When the Guardian is safely recovered by the U.S. Navy, the U.S. government will continue to work with the Philippine government to assess the extent of the damage to reef and the surrounding marine environment caused by the grounding,” the U.S. Navy said.
Meanwhile, an assessment team from the U.S. Navy has already arrived in Palawan to work on the extraction of the USS Guardian from the Tubbataha Reef.
Lt. Commander Ralph Kris Hooper, public affairs officer of the U.S. 7th Fleet, said the extraction team includes engineers, divers, and other essential personnel.
Filipino lawmakers have begun questioning the U.S. warship’s presence in Philippine waters.
Sen. Francis Escudero, chairman of the Senate Committee on Environment and Natural Resources, is asking if the ship had 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?” Escudero asked.
Sen. Loren Legarda, meanwhile, wants the Presidential Commission on the Visiting Forces Agreement and the Philippine Coast Guard to explain why the USS Guardian was in the waters near the Tubbataha Reef, which are considered a “no navigation area.”
UNESCO declared the Tubbataha Reef a World Heritage Site in 1993. It covers 130,028 hectares and is home to thousands of marine species. With a report from ANC and The Philippine Star.