US pays P87 M for Tubbataha damage

By Pia Lee-Brago
US pays P87 M for Tubbataha damage

The Philippine government has received P87 million, or $1.97 million, from the United States for the damage caused by the grounding of the minesweeper USS Guardian in Palawan’s Tubbataha Reef two years ago.

The Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) said yesterday the government received the compensation last Jan. 20 for the damage to Tubbataha, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The DFA said the money will help rehabilitate and protect the reef and enhance monitoring of the area to prevent a repeat of the incident. The US government will also assist the Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) in upgrading its station at the reef.

The DFA stressed that the timing of the compensation has nothing to do with the reported involvement of the US in the operation to arrest Malaysian terrorist Zulkifli Abdul bin Hir, alias Marwan, in Mamasapano, Maguindanao last Jan. 25 that resulted in the slaughter of 44 policemen in a clash with Muslim rebels.

“Definitely there is no connection because the payment was made before the Mamasapano incident,” Foreign Affairs spokesman Charles Jose told reporters.

The Guardian ran aground at the Tubbataha National Marine Park in January 2013 and was dismantled piecemeal over two months to prevent further damage to the reef.

The park management, the World Wide Fund for Nature, and marine experts said in a joint assessment that 2,345 square meters, or 25,240 square feet of corals were damaged.

The US Navy and the US embassy apologized for the accident.The US Pacific Fleet also relieved the ship’s commanding officer, executive officer and navigator, assistant navigator and officer on deck after initial findings indicated they had failed to adhere to standard navigation procedures at the time of the grounding.

The Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR), the Tubbataha Management Office (TMO) and Senate committee on environment and natural resources chair Sen. Loren Legarda welcomed the development.

DENR Biodiversity Management Bureau Director Mundita Lim said the agency also looks forward to the actual disbursement of the fund for Tubbataha Park’s rehabilitation.

The TMO sought P58 million for the damage sustained by the reef while the PCG asked for P29 million for its services.

Park manager Angelique Songco said the TMO wants to place the money in an endowment fund to sustain operations because her office does not get regular state funding.

“If our bosses will allow it, our dream is to place the money in an endowment fund and then we will just get the interest from the fund every year. If we do that, the benefits from the fund will be long term rather than spending it at once but you won’t have anything left for maintenance,” she said.

“We have to wait every year for funds. We use the money paid by tourists to support our operations. If we have an endowment fund, life will be easier for us,” she added.

Legarda echoed a similar concern. She said the greater challenge now is the successful rehabilitation of the damaged portions of Tubbataha Reef.

“We know that it would take longer for the reef to fully recover and for the productive area to flourish again. Now that the fund is available, we are confident that the Tubbataha Protected Area Management Board and the Tubbataha Management Office would be able to carry out all the necessary actions to rehabilitate and further protect the reef,” she said.

Sen. Grace Poe said the grounding incident highlights the need to ensure full protection of the Philippines’ marine resources by all vessels amid geopolitical developments in the region. – With Alexis Romero, Rhodina Villanueva, Christina Mendez, AP