US Navy warship runs aground in Tubbataha Reef; no reports of fuel leaks

(Updated 4:24 p.m.) A US Navy minesweeper, the USS Guardian, ran aground in the Sulu Sea on Thursday and was stuck on Tubbataha Reef, the US Navy said.

No one was injured in the incident, which occurred at 2:25 a.m. local time on Tubbataha Reef about 130 km east-southeast of Palawan, the Navy said. There were no reports that any fuel leaked from the vessel.

The ship, with a crew of 80, had just completed a port call at Subic Bay when the grounding occurred.

File photo of the USS Guardian, a US Navy minesweeper that ran aground in the Tubbataha Reef, a World Heritage Site and popular diving destination in Palawan, early Thursday. The vessel was in Subic Bay on Jan. 13 for a routine fuel stop before sailing to Puerto Princesa City for a brief visit. US Navy "The crew is currently working to determine the best method of safely extracting the ship," a Navy statement said, adding that the cause of the grounding was under investigation. Environmental damage Known as one of the world's best dive sites, the Tubbataha Reefs Natural Park is a 97,030-hectare World Heritage Site consisting of two coral atolls that harbor a wide range of marine species including large marine life such as manta rays, sharks, and turtles. Park supervisor Angelique Songco expressed concern about the refusal of US navy personnel to allow the park rangers to inspect the damage to the reefs, which ring the atolls. "Attempt to board after identifying themselves was not entertained. They were told instead that the US embassy will negotiate with Tubbataha and that another US navy boat will be arriving," she said in a text message from Palawan. "There is environmental damage here. Our rangers need to assess the coral damage but they cannot even go near the site," Songco added. "The rangers wanted to get US navy divers to dive with them to witness inspection of the damage to the park assets. How do we get this done?" In a statement, Foreign Affairs spokesperson Raul Hernandez said the department was closely coordinating with the US Embassy and the Department of National Defense, the Armed Forces of the Philippines and the Coast Guard regarding the incident. "We expect that relevant agencies of the PH govt will conduct their own investigation, assess the impact of the incident on the reef, and recommend any and all actions that must be taken," he said. "For the moment, our main concern is to ensure safety of navigation in the area and to mitigate this incident's impact in the reef which is a natural and national treasure." In a coral reef symposium last year, marine scientists hailed Tubbataha as a conservation model amid threats to reefs in what is known as the Coral Triangle. The region covers six countries, including the Philippines, and contains nearly 30 percent of the world’s coral reefs and more than 3,000 species of fish — twice the number found anywhere else in the world. Visited Subic and Puerto Princesa In a press release, the US embassy in Manila said the USS Guardian was scheduled to visit Subic Bay last Jan. 13 for a routine fuel stop. After an overnight visit, the vessel would proceed to Puerto Princesa City in Palawan for another brief visit. The vessel was described as a US Navy Avenger-class mine countermeasures ship assigned to the U.S. Navy’s 7th Fleet and forward-deployed to Sasebo in Japan. The crew includes eight Filipino-Americans, one of them the ship’s highest ranking enlisted sailor who is originally from Olongapo City, the embassy statement said. "The Government of the Philippines was promptly informed of the incident and offered to assist the U.S. Navy, and we greatly appreciate their offers of assistance," Press and Information Officer Tina Malone of the US Embassy Manila said in an e-mail to GMA News Online when sought for comment about the grounding incident. "The safety of the Guardian’s crew and preventing harm to the environment are the U.S. Navy’s top priorities," she added. Maj. Oliver Banaria, commander of the AFP's 6th Civil Relations Group based in Palawan, told reporters in a phone interview that an aircraft and a ship have been deployed to conduct "aerial reconnaissance" and to see what assistance they can provide to the stricken vessel. He said a Nomad aircraft had flown over the area, while a PG-383 navy ship had left Puerto Princesa at noon Thursday to check on the situation in Tubbataha. Penalty for coral damage This is not the first time that a large vessel has run aground in the remote reefs located in the middle of the Sulu Sea, which are frequented by liveaboard dive boats during the summer months from March to May. In 2005, the ship Rainbow Warrior of the environmental group Greenpeace also hit Tubbataha, damaging corals that covered a total area of 32 meters by 3 meters (105 x 10 feet) of the reef. Greenpeace paid a fine of 384,000 pesos (US$6,857) for the damage, according to a report in the group's website. Greenpeace said the government chart they were using had shown them to be 1.5 miles away from the reef when the vessel ran aground at the time. Songco said the US navy would certainly be fined once the park rangers finish their assessment of coral damage to Tubbataha. GMA News Online was still waiting for a response from the US 7th fleet regarding the question of penalty for coral damage as of posting time. The only land masses in the reefs are two islets in the north and south atolls, and a sandbar where the marine park station is located. A lighthouse is found on the south islet. Jose Maria Lorenzo Tan, President of World Wildlife Fund Philippines which is assisting in park conservation efforts, called on the US Navy to "stand accountable" for any damage its vessel may cause to the reef. "The US government pushes for local governance, and yet, they ignore a local ranger team that is only trying to do its job," he said. — With a report from Reuters/Gian Geronimo/Michaela del Callar/YA/HS/RSJ, GMA News

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