MANILA (3rd UPDATE) - The Philippines' defense and foreign affairs chiefs refuted Tuesday the reported dumping of human waste in the West Philippine Sea.
Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said the report is "not true", while Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin, Jr. branded it as "fake".
Simularity, a geospatial intelligence firm, earlier reported that raw sewage from hundreds of ships were being dumped on reefs in the Spratly Islands, leading to concentration of unwanted and harmful algae in the maritime area.
It said wastewater is being disposed of in the Spratly and Paracel Islands, based on satellite images taken by the European Space Agency.
In an official statement, Lorenzana said the Department of National Defense is "confirming and verifying these wastes being dumped in the WPS."
"I have directed the Western Command who has jurisdiction over the WPS to verify and investigate," he said.
"Absent any confirmation of the Simularity report", he told reporters, "the reported dumping of waste in the (West Philippine Sea) is not true."
He noted that his department has "not received any report of waste dumping in the past."
But he pointed out that "the photo of a ship seen dumping waste accompanying the report was found to have been taken in the Australian Great Barrier Reef in 2014."
"Therefore, this intent to mislead has cast great doubt on the (accuracy) of the Simularity Report," Lorenzana said.
"We also question the conclusion reached by Simularity from just looking at satellite photos," he added.
Simularity later clarified that they only used the photo to provide context.
"We did not use this image in our research. Ships dumping sewage is a common practice. We used it in our report to provide a context for what we were able to view from space. We never claimed it was a picture of a Chinese ship in the Spratlys," the firm said in a statement.
Simularity said one media organization misidentified the picture, leading to confusion where it happened.
"We have communicated with the agency, who reached out to us, and have urged them to print a retraction, and include our original image credit, and list of sources," the firm said.
It also asserted that the C2RCC processor the European Space Agency used, composed of a set of additional neural networks performing specific tasks and special neural networks tasked to cover extreme ranges of scattering and absorption, "has been validated in scientific literature as a way to measure Chlorophyll-a concentration."
"We welcome investigation into our research, as it is based on publicly available sources, and the approach and interpretation are validated by readily available scientific papers," it said.
The Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) said it was coordinating with authorities to check the authenticity of the reports and validate if Chinese vessels were behind it.
"On the issue of waste disposal on the West Philippine Sea, we will coordinate with (Philippine Coast Guard) and (Department of National Defense) first on the authenticity of the allegation," Environment Undersecretary Benny Antiporda said.
"After that, we will be seeking for the attention of the Chinese Government through our (Department of Foreign Affairs). We will also validate if indeed [these] are Chinese vessels," he added.
Lorenzana said that while his department has yet to confirm if the reported wastes have reached Philippine waters, "such irresponsible acts, if true, will undoubtedly cause grave damage to the marine ecology in the region."
The Philippines and China continue to be embroiled in a maritime dispute on the South China Sea, within which is the West Philippine Sea, as Beijing refuses to recognize an international arbitration court ruling that voided its nine-dash line claim over almost the entire waters.
Brunei, Malaysia, Vietnam and Taiwan also have competing claims in the South China Sea.
"Despite overlapping claims and interests by states in the South China Sea, all nations must be responsible stewards of the environment," said Lorenzana.
"While we are confirming and verifying these wastes being dumped in the WPS, we consider such irresponsible acts, if true, to be gravely detrimental to the marine ecology in the area," he added.
Advocacy group Oceana "strongly condemns the alleged dumping of human waste... in the water off Union Banks or the Pagkakaisa reefs, which form part of the Kalayaan Island Group within the West Philippine Sea," it said in a statement.
"This poses a serious risk to the fisheries and rich biodiversity of our ocean from which the Philippines and its neighboring countries depend on for food," it said.
The Philippines, as a signatory to the International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships (MARPOL) which safeguards against pollution by sewage and garbage from ships, should investigate "this deplorable abuse of our territorial waters," Oceana said.
It called on the Philippine Coast Guard and the Department of Agriculture-Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (DA-BFAR) to verify the report.
"The amended Fisheries Code imposes sanctions on vessels found guilty of aquatic pollution, and the Clean Water Act of 2004 prohibits unauthorized transport or dumping into sea waters of sewage sludge or solid waste," the group said.
-- With a report from April Rafales, ABS-CBN News