The Philippines is asking the United States to pay more than a million dollars for damaging an internationally protected reef a year and a half ago. The reef is located in the Sulu Sea, on the opposite side of the South China Sea where the Philippines is in a dispute with China and four other nations.
In early 2013, the U.S. naval mine sweeping vessel, the USS Guardian was stuck for 73 days on a section of the Tubbataha Reef on the eastern coast of Palawan province.
Officials estimate the minesweeper damaged more than 2,300 square meters of corals. Engineers had to dismantle the ship to remove it.
Tubbataha Reefs' Protected Area Superintendent Angelique Songco says an assessment team, which included local officials, U.S. Navy personnel and a U.S. marine biologist, concluded damages would run about $1.5 million.
"We all agreed. We had scientists with us. We all agreed that that was the size after having measured it. And yes, we're happy about it and we think it's fair," said Songco.
The 97,000-hectare Tubbataha Reefs are a designated United Nations World Heritage Site. The marine park's administrators say more than 70 percent of the world's coral species grow there. The sanctuary is a popular recreational diving spot and home to internationally threatened and endangered marine animals.
A local environmentalist group "Kalikasan" (or "nature") says the compensation request is "not only too late, it is not enough." Kalikasan National Coordinator Clarence Bautista says the Philippine government should pursue criminal and civil cases.
"It doesn't address the issue of how the U.S. Navy or USS Guardian responsible officers and persons [will] be held accountable under Philippine jurisdiction," said Bautista.
Kalikasan filed a petition with the Philippines' high court calling for several conditions including "immediate compensation" of up to $27 million, pursuing criminal charges under Philippine law and placing a moratorium on joint U.S. and Philippine military exercises especially in marine protected areas. Bautista says last month the Supreme Court sent word that the U.S. respondents had not yet received the filing.
The U.S. Navy relieved four officers including the ship's commander following the incident.
Weeks after the USS Guardian was cleared away, a Chinese fishing vessel carrying endangered species ran aground on the northern edge of the reef.
Tubbataha Superintendent Angelique Songco says the Chinese grounding caused double the amount of damage of the U.S. ship but there has been difficulty tracking down that vessel's owner.
In light of the two incidents, Tubbataha on Thursday issued an action plan to strengthen enforcement of its "buffer zone." It covers 356,000 hectares of surrounding waters.