US fleet commander ‘regrets’ grounded ship’s damage to Tubbataha reef

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Monday, January 21, 2013

MANILA -- An American navy fleet commander expressed regret over the possible damages caused by the USS Guardian that ran aground the Tubbataha Reef last week.

"As a protector of the sea and a sailor myself, I greatly regret any damage this incident has caused to the Tubbataha Reef," Vice Admiral Scott Swift said in the official website of the US Navy.

"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," added Swift, the US 7th Fleet Commander.

The 68-meter USS Guardian, which is an avenger-class mine counter-measure vessel, is part of the 7th Fleet. According to the US Navy, the vessel ran aground on Tubbataha Reef at 2:25 a.m. on January 17. The ship, which departed Olongapo City en route to Indonesia, was transiting the Sulu Sea when the grounding occurred.

The 79 crew members of the grounded ship were temporarily removed on Friday and transferred to nearby support vessels.

As of Sunday, the condition of the USS Guardian has not changed and remains stuck on Tubbataha Reef's south atoll, the US Navy also said on its website.

Swift announced that Rear Admiral Thomas Carney, Commander of Logistics Group Western Pacific, will take over Monday as the on-scene commander to oversee the Guardian recovery operations.

On Friday, the US Navy said they have been provided by the US National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency with the preliminary findings of a review on Digital Nautical Charts that contain "inaccurate navigation data."

The US Navy said these faulty digital navigation chart data "misplaced the location of Tubbataha Reef" and may have been a factor in the grounding of the Guardian.

"While the erroneous navigation chart data is important information, no one should jump to conclusions," US Pacific Fleet spokesman Capt. Darryn James said earlier in the US Navy website.

"It is critical that the US Navy conduct a comprehensive investigation that assesses all the facts surrounding the Guardian grounding," he added.

The US Navy, which is investigating the exact cause of the grounding, also assured that the American government will cooperate in assessing the extent of the damage caused by the incident.

"When the Guardian is safely recovered by the US Navy, the US government will continue to work with the Republic of Philippines government to assess the extent of the damage to the reef and the surrounding marine environment caused by the grounding," the US Navy said.

In a press briefing Monday, Senator Gregorio Honasan II said the US Navy must explain the presence of one its ships in Philippine waters.

"They have to answer that question first before looking into possible sanctions," said Honasan, a former soldier.

Former Senator Juan Miguel Zubiri, who is running for the same position in the May midterm elections, added that an apology from the US Navy is not enough.

"The US Navy does not represent the US government," he said.

The Department of Transportation and Communication has ordered the Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) to submit an initial assessment report on the damages caused by the incident.

Rear Admiral Rodolfo Isorena, PCG commandant, ordered on Friday the deployment of the vessel BRP Corregidor (AE-891) along with two teams from the Marine Environmental Protection Command, whose members brought equipment such as oil spill boom, skimmer and oil dispersant chemicals to prevent any oil spill incident.

There are reportedly no traces of an oil slick in the protected marine area, which is approximately 80 miles east-southeast of Palawan, the US Navy said.

According to the website of the Unesco World Heritage Convention (WHC), the Tubbataha Reef Natural Park protects an area of almost "100,000 hectares of high quality marine habitats containing three atolls and a large area of deep sea."

Home to a great diversity of marine life, the reef ecosystems support over 350 species of coral, about 500 species of fish, and protect one of the few remaining colonies of breeding seabirds in the region, the Unesco WHC explained in its website. (Emmanuel Louis Bacani/Virgil Lopez/Sunnex)

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