The Philippines has announced plans to fine the United States $1.5 million for damage to a protected coral reef where a Navy ship was stuck for more than two months.
Meanwhile, the ship's commanding officer and three others have been relieved of their duties, the Navy said.
The $277 million USS Guardian ran aground Jan. 17 on the environmentally sensitive Tubbataha Reef, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and a Philippines natural park in the Sulu Sea. The ship was then pushed further onto the reef and battered by waves.
The ship was stranded onTubbataha Reef for more than two months before being removed.
The Avenger-class minesweeper, a 224-foot, wood-and-fiberglass-hulled ship, had to be dismantled to avoid further damage to the coral reef after the Navy determined that it could not lift the ship in one piece during high tide.
Last week, it was determined that the ship damaged about 2,346 square meters (25,252 square feet) of coral, marine biologists reported during a meeting of the Tubbataha Protected Area Management Board (TPAMB).
That is less than the original estimate of 4,000 square meters (43,000 square feet).
Embassy Request Planned
The park board now plans to seek $1.5 million in damages from the United States for the accident. The tab includes penalties for violating sections of the Tubbataha Act that bar unauthorized entry; damages to the reef; non-payment of conservation fees; destroying and/or disturbing resources; and obstruction of law enforcement officers, officials said.
The board "will contact the US Navy and US Embassy to detail the violations committed in relation to the USS Guardian grounding and expects the payment of PhP58.4 million, USD1.5 million, in fines by the US Government," the board said Monday in a posting on its website.
There was no immediate response from the Navy or other U.S. agency.
Accident and Salvage
The ship's hull was punctured in the accident, flooding parts of the ship. The Navy contracted a tug to transfer the 15,000 gallons of diesel fuel on board, and then removed hazardous and other materials that might damage the reef, including 671 gallons of lubricating oil and paints and solvents contained in lockers.
The complex and delicate salvage operation, taking place 80 miles from the nearest port, was suspended several times due to storms.
The Naval Sea System Command's (NAVSEA) Supervisor of Salvage and Diving (SUPSALV) worked to dismantle the USS Guardian, bringing in two heavy lift cranes to remove the ship in 250-ton sections.
A preliminary review by the Navy found that the crew had been using a digital chart that inaccurately listed the reef's location by eight miles.
The incident sparked protests at the U.S. Embassy in Manila, where demonstraters splattered anti-riot police with paint.
Philippine Coast Guard
Two heavy lift cranes removed the hull in 250-ton sections to dismantle the 224-foot vessel.
On April 3–5, a U.S. Navy marine biologist, Lee Shannon, led a team of scientists to assess the damage. The team included leading Filipino marine biologists Miledel Christine C. Quibilan and Dr. Cleto L. Nanola Jr. The assessment work was supported by the Tubbataha Management Office, WWF-Philippines, UP Diliman Department of Sciences and Technology, and De La Salle University.
The team used aerial photography, transect tape measurement, and Global Positioning System coordinates to derive the official measurement. A previous survey, conducted on Jan. 27, used aerial imaging and originally outlined the grounding zone using the ship's length as a basis for computing the damage.
The final figure was agreed upon by the Navy and the Tubbataha Protected Area Management Board, according to the Tubbataha Management Office.
On Monday (April 8), a second team of marine scientists visited the site to conduct in-depth research on the conditions of the reef and make a visual record of the damaged area to serve for coral recovery monitoring.
U.S. Navy / Lee Shannon
Scientists outlinined six damaged areas: the coral debris field (A, F) caused the movement of the rear and forward side of the ship; the salvage operations impact area (B); mark left by the ship's hull (C); the scoured area caused by the ship's propeller (D); and the grounding scar from broahing (E).
Navy Relieves Crew Members
As part of an ongoing Navy investigation into the incident, the commanding officer, Lt. Cmdr. Mark A. Rice; the executive officer/navigator, Lt. Daniel Tyler; the assistant navigator; and the officer of the deck at the time of the grounding were relieved of their duties on April 3.
According to the Navy, the initial investigation findings "clearly indicate" that the four sailors "did not adhere to standard U.S. Navy navigation procedures." The sailors were relieved due to "their role in the grounding and a loss of confidence," the Navy said.
All four sailors have been temporarily reassigned to the Expeditionary Strike Group (ESG) 7, pending completion of the investigation.
The Navy has apologized for the incident.
The Navy held a decommissioning ceremony March 6 at Naval Base Sasebo, Japan, concluding 23 years of service by the ship.
Originally commissioned in 1989, the ship played a role in several real-world mine neutralizations and search-and-rescue missions in the Arabian Gulf, as well as participating in bi-lateral exercises with the navies of Japan and Korea since becoming a forward-deployed Naval asset in 1996.
In a statement March 30, the U.S. Embassy in Manila said the U.S. government was "taking steps to continue our longstanding commitment to coral reef preservation and the protection of the marine resources of the Philippines."
According to the Embassy, in addition to compensation for damage, a $100,000 grant from the U.S. Agency for International Development's Philippines Coral Triangle Support Partnership will be given to Western Palawan University to support coral restoration at Tubbataha Reef.
The U.S. government will also contribute more than $1 million to establish joint research on biodiversity and marine conservation between Filipino and American scientists.
In April, a team from the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration consulted with stakeholders about marine and fisheries conservation activities "that will contribute to achieving Philippine commitments to the Coral Triangle Initiative National Plan of Action," the Embassy stated.
Salvaging the ship at sea has already cost $45 million, Stars and Stripes reported, citing a U.S. 7th Fleet spokesman.
Call for Criminal Charges
Also this week, an activist fishing group and a political group called again for the filing of criminal charges against officials and the Guardian's 79 crewmembers, according to the Philippines New Agency (PNA), a newswire service of the Phlippine government.
In a joint statement, the groups asked Department of Justice Secretary Leila M. De Lima to "settle the score" with the U.S. government. The group first filed a complaint in the matter Feb. 5.
"Now it is time for DOJ to assert the country's sovereignty and moral claim to justice," the statement said.
The letter called for "immediate and unconditional pullout of U.S. troops, warships and aircraft inside the Philippine territory"; endorsement of the termination of the Visiting Forces Agreement and the Mutual Defense Treaty; and charges against U.S. Navy officials and crew for violating Tubbataha protected area laws.
No immediate response was available from De Lima, PNA reported.