Compensation for Tubbataha Reef damage pushed

Manila News Bureau Chief

MANILA — The Philippine government will continue discussing with the United States the matter of securing full compensation for the damage caused by a US ship when it ran aground the Tubbataha Reef last year.

The Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) declared this yesterday even after the Supreme Court earlier rejected a plea by environmental groups to require the USS Guardian to pay for damages it caused on the marine sanctuary.

Damages should be made in a separate civil suit as provided under the writ of kalikasan, the high court said in a decision penned by Associate Justice Martin Villarama.

The high court’s ruling is contained in its unanimous ruling with 13-0-2 vote dismissing the petition for Writ of Kalikasan filed by anti-mining advocate Palawan Bishop Pedro Arigo, environmentalists and militant groups.

The petitioners wanted the Supreme Court to issue a temporary environmental protection order and require US officials and their representatives to place a deposit to the Tubbataha Reefs National Park (TRNP) Trust Fund as a gesture toward full reparations for P58.37million.

Under international and domestic laws, such as the Polluter Pay Principles, Rio and Stockholm Declarations, the US government is legally bound to pay for environmental damages brought about by its military forces and assets in other countries, they pointed out.

They also asked the high court to require the rehabilitation of the areas affected by the grounding of the USS Guardian.

However, the high court declined to grant damages that allegedly resulted from the violation of environmental laws because the rules on environmental protection and the writ of kalikasan expressly provide that the recovery of damages, including the collection of administrative fines under Republic Act 10067 (An Act Establishing the Tubbataha Reef) are to be made in “a separate civil suit or that one deemed instituted with any criminal action.”

While the country has no jurisdiction over the respondents, including ranking officials of the US Marine Corps, America’s action can be brought before the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (Unclos), said the Supreme Court.

“The US’ non-membership in the Unclos does not mean that the US will disregard the rights of the Philippines as a coastal state over its internal waters and territorial sea,” it said. “The US is expected to bear ‘international responsibility’ under Article 31.”

In a statement, the DFA said it will be guided by the high court’s decision and the advice of the Office of the Solicitor General on the question of compensation.

“We will also continue to work with other government agencies to enhance navigational safety in the area and preserve the reef and its marine environment,” the DFA said.

The USS Guardian had just completed a port call in Subic Bay and was en route to its next port of call on Jan. 17, 2013 when the grounding occurred north of the South Shoal of the Tubbataha Reefs in Sulu Sea, about 129 kilometers east-southeast of Palawan.

The reef, which sits at the center of Sulu Sea 157 kilometers southeast of Puerto Princesa City, Palawan, is within the Coral Triangle, an area of important biological and marine diversity.

Covering almost 97,030 hectares, it serves as a sanctuary for more than 350 species of corals, almost 500 species of fish, and one of the few remaining colonies of breeding seabirds in the region./PN