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US taken to court over Philippine reef damage

Ship grounding sparks new protest over military presence

US taken to court over Philippine reef damage
US troops in exercises with the Philippine military
D'Jay Lazaro, Manila

April 17, 2013

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Environmental activists and scientists today filed a citizen suit before the Supreme Court asking for a "Writ of Kalikasan" over the grounding of the US minesweeper USS Guardian in Tubbataha Reef last January.

The writ of Kalikasan is an extraordinary legal remedy for cases involving environmental damage of such magnitude as to prejudice the life, health, or property of inhabitants in two or more cities or provinces.

The writ was filed against Scott Swift, commander of the US 7th Fleet, Mark Rice, commanding officer of the USS Guardian, and a slew of Philippine officials led by President Benigno Aquino to seek liability for the ecological and environmental damage the US military ship has caused on Tubbataha Reef, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. 

"We filed this case because of the inaction of the government to exact justice from the USS Guardian grounding incident," said Clemente Bautista, national coordinator of green group Kalikasan People's Network for the Environment. 

Bautista said the US Navy "clearly violated our laws and trampled on our sovereignty" yet the Philippine government is "inutile" to hold the US Navy and the USS Guardian personnel accountable for the incident.

The petitioners, who include Catholic Bishop Pedro Arigo of Puerto Princesa, said the current valuation and compensation demand made by the Philippine government is not enough and pales in comparison to the prior valuations and compensation made by the US Navy for other incidents.

The US Navy paid the government of Hawaii a total of US$15 million in compensation for 8,000 sq ms of damaged reef and proposed a restoration value of $20-$45 million after the 2009 grounding of USS Port Royal there. 

The Philippine government is only asking the US government $1.4 million for the damaged reef in Tubbataha, which is also included in a list of Ramsar Wetlands of International Importance.

The National Union of Peoples’ Lawyers supported the activists' position that the US is legally accountable for the grounding of the USS Guardian at the Tubbataha Reef’s south atoll on January 17, 2013.

The suit was filed on behalf of the Filipinos living in the provinces surrounding Tubbataha Reef on the Sulu Sea – namely, Palawan, Antique, Aklan, Guimaras, Iloilo, Negros Occidental, Negros Oriental, Zamboanga del Norte, Basilan, Sulu, and Tawi-Tawi.

Lawyer Edsel Tupaz, counsel for the petitioners, said the Tubbataha Reef Park is rich in biodiversity and has high ecological importance, "thus the valuation of which is more costly than the government earlier assessed."

Bautista, however, said the issue goes far beyond monetary compensation. He said the grounding of USS Guardian is brought about by the implementation of the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) between the Philippines and the United States.

"The presence of US troops and the conduct of their military exercises and maneuverings in our country have brought about massive damage to our ecological systems," he said.

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