Groups seek Supreme Court intervention vs US warships

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LEGAZPI CITY, 4July2013 – Environmental activists and militant groups filed an urgent motion to ask the Supreme Court for a series of Temporary Environmental Protection Orders (TEPOs). The TEPOs aim, among others, is to stop the on-going US military exercises and port calls of US warships in the Philippines. The motion is part of an earlier Petition for the Writ of Kalikasan regarding the USS Guardian grounding case in the Tubbataha Reefs Natural Marine Park. The petitioners are led by Palawan Bishop Pedro Arigo.

The urgent motion comes in the wake of news that the Philippines is now considering different modalities that would allow greater US military presence and access to PH facilities including former military bases such as those in Subic.

“The growing rotational presence in the country of these US troops renders our marine protected areas highly vulnerable to destruction and degradation given the influx of military personnel, weaponry and naval and ground vessels. The unlimited access being given to these warships, without any clear environmental guidelines, reveals the fatal problems of the Visiting Forces Agreement,” says Renato Reyes, Bayan Spokesperson.

“The environment, particularly the fragile and vital coastal and marine ecosystems, is not a concern under the VFA. The move to grant the US military greater access to our facilities may imperil the future of our marine resources, people’s livelihood in the Philippines, as well as the strategic role that the  Philippine resources play as a ‘center of marine biodiversity’,’” Reyes averred.

“We urge our Supreme Court justices to expedite the hearing on the Writ of Kalikasan to protect our marine environment particularly the World Heritage Site, the Tubbataha Reefs Natural Marine Park from further risk of destruction from US military exercises and manoeuvrings in our territorial waters,” said Clemente Bautista of environmental group Kalikasan-People’s Network for the Environment (Kalikasan-PNE).

On January 17, 2013, the US Navy ship, USS Guardian grounded at the Tubbataha Reef destroying at least 2,346 square meters of pristine and highly diverse coral ecosystems. In an investigation report, dated May22,2013, of the grounding incident, the US Navy admitted its fault saying the incident was caused by failure of leadership of the USS Guardian Command and human error.

“Yet, more than a month had passed since the Supreme Court asked the respondents of the case to comment on the Petition, the US Navy has not issued a reply. US Navy personnel clearly violated Philippine laws and should be held responsible. US forces should be prevented from continuing with these transgressions and subjecting our environment to more danger and ecological damage,” Bautista added.

In their urgent motion, the petitioners are asking the Supreme Court the following:

a.  Order Respondents to stop all port calls and military exercises in the absence of clear environmental guidelines, duties, and liability schemes for breaches of those duties.

b. Require Respondent US officials and their representatives to place a deposit to the TRNP Trust Fund, defined under Section 17 of RA 10067, as a  ”reasonable guarantee” towards full reparations in the sum of at least Php 58,375,080 or US$ 1,459,377.00.

c. Motion to Proceed Ex Parte as against US Respondents.

d. Provide just and equitable environmental rehabilitation measures and such other reliefs as are just and equitable under the premises.

The Aquino government through its Solicitor General said that there is no relation between the VFA and the environmental issues raised in the Kalikasan petition.

“This is wrong, because US military forces such as the USS Guardian would not be transiting Philippine waters but for the VFA-Mutual Defense Treaty(MDT) regime. More importantly, there are no existing guidelines under the VFA-MDT regime for the protection and rehabilitation of the environment in relation to U.S. Armed Forces activities or operations in the country,” said Atty. Edsel Tupaz, head legal counsel and also a petitioner in the case.

“Continued use of our national ports, all at the cost of the national government, for so-called ‘routine’port calls by US vessels, without having to pay for prior liquidated extraordinary environmental damages caused by a call of their very own, is an unfair situation,” Tupaz said.  “Thus a TEPO or a series of TEPOs are needed to assure us that damages are going to be paid, prior to incurring any unnecessary government expenditures for the maintenance of these ports and port calls.”

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