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Philippines to fine US Navy after USS Guardian ran aground on UNESCO heritage reef

Philippine officials said they intend to fine the U.S. Navy for destroying natural resources after one of its minesweepers got stuck Thursday on a World Heritage-listed coral reef off the coast.

Philippine Naval Forces and Coast Guard officials are investigating the incident at the Tubbataha Reefs Natural Park, a remote marine habitat protected under Philippine law.

“We don’t know yet how much damage has been done,” said Angelique Songco, the park’s superintendent, in a statement. “We can only wait till they leave before we take a look at the area.”

The fine amount was not disclosed. Park officials said the Navy violated at least five Philippine laws designed to protect the park, including unauthorized entry, non-payment of conservation fee, obstruction of law enforcement officer, damages to the reef and destruction of resources.

“This is an unfortunate incident," Tubbataha Protected Area Management Board officials said in a statement Tuesday.  "No one wanted this to happen.  But, damage has been done,” board officials said in a statement Tuesday. “We will ask them to take responsibility, and immediately pay the fines that can  be estimated at this time.”

Once the damage has been assessed, park officials intend to serve the Navy with additional fines, the board said. Park officials could not be reached for comment Tuesday.

The USS Guardian, a 224-foot Avenger-class mine countermeasures ship with a crew of about 80, had completed a routine fuel stop in the western Philippines and was sailing toward Indonesia to participate in a training exercise when it hit the reef at about 2:25 a.m., according to Navy officials.

“The U.S. Navy is committed to being a good steward of the maritime environment and we regret any damage this incident has caused to the Tubbataha reef,” Lt. Cdr. Ralph Kris Hooper, a spokesman for the Navy’s 7th Fleet, wrote in an email Tuesday.

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Navy have said they immediately contacted the Philippine government to notify officials about the grounding. But park officials said they only learned of the incident through radars at 4 a.m.

Park rangers said they radioed the Guardian after discovering the incident and moved to board the vessel, but were greeted by armed sailors.

“The ship’s commander ordered a general alert and deployed personnel into battle position when our rangers tried to approach their ship to assess the situation, forcing them to back off,” Songco said.

Standard security protocol would prohibit allowing access to the ship, Hooper said.

The Tubbataha Reef sprawls across 100,000 hectares and supports over 350 species of coral and almost 500 species of fish, according to the UNESCO World Heritage Centre.

No one was injured in the grounding. Crew members were transferred to another Navy ship.

Preliminary findings suggest inaccurate navigation data provided by the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency could have contributed to the grounding, according to the Navy. 

At least one navigation chart had the reef eight miles away from its true location, but two other charts correctly identified the location of the reef, said Christine Phillips, an NGA spokeswoman. The charts are maintained separately and the agency is investigating why the one chart was incorrect.

Rear Adm. Thomas Carney, commander of Logistics Group Western Pacific, has been tapped to oversee the recovery operations and ensure the reef does not sustain further damage.

silvac@stripes.osd.mil
Twitter: @cristymsilva

 

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