MANILA, Philippines – The United States Navy has sent an assessment team that would plan and execute the delicate extraction of an American minesweeper from the Tubbataha Reef with the least damage on the marine sanctuary where it has been trapped since Thursday, the unit’s Japan-based fleet has said.
The forward-deployed US Navy’s Seventh Fleet also admitted that the grounding of the 68-meter USS Guardian could have damaged the reef just as the incident spurred a demand among concerned Philippine groups for US accountability over the destruction of what is considered a national treasure.
The US Navy has yet to clarify how the ship found its way into the protected marine park while sailing to Puerto Princesa, Palawan.
“Without speculating about this particular case, there are potential risks of damage from physical contact between the ship and the reef or sea floor, and from the effects of material from the ship being introduced into the environment,” Lt. Brian Wierzbicki, a public affairs officer the Seventh Fleet, told the Philippine Daily Inquirer.
“We won’t know more until the assessment team arrives on scene,” he said in an e-mail response sent from the fleet’s base in Yokosuka, Japan.
The Avenger-class mine countermeasures ship was en route to its next port call following a routine stop in the Philippines when it struck the reef and got stuck some 128 kilometers off Palawan before dawn on Thursday.
The US Navy said the ship was not leaking oil. An official of the Tubbataha marine park earlier said the ship was lying on around 10 meters of coral.
Manned by 79 sailors, the ship had arrived at the former US naval base at Subic Bay in Olongapo City on January 13 for a routine resupply, refueling and rest and recreation stop and a quick visit in Puerto Princesa before sailing off to its next destination.
Wierzbicki said the Navy was still investigating how the ship, known to be equipped with top-of-the-line navigational equipment, ran aground the reef in the vast Sulu Sea.
“The Navy recognizes that Tubbataha Reef is a unique and treasured environment. The cause of this incident will be thoroughly investigated,” said Wierzbicki when asked for comment on the concern of environment groups.
“The full extent of any damage to the reef won’t be determined until the ship is freed from the reef,” he said.
The Seventh Fleet and the US Embassy in Manila said separately that initial attempts to release the Guardian had been unsuccessful. Wierzbicki said the US Navy’s assessment team, dispatched from Puerto Princesa on Friday, would “assess conditions, assist in salvage operations and develop a recovery plan.
“[T]heir focus will be to get onboard, get a workable plan in place and work to extract Guardian from the reef with as little damage as possible,”
In a separate statement, US Seventh Fleet commander Vice Admiral Scott Swift said other support vessels have arrived on scene.
“Seventh Fleet ships remain on scene and essential Guardian Sailors will continue conducting survey operations onboard the ship as needed until she is recovered. Several support vessels have arrived and all steps are being taken to minimize environmental effects while ensuring the crew’s continued safety,” Swift said.
Wierzbicki said 72 of the Guardian’s crew were evacuated Friday and transferred to MV C-Champion, a Military Sealift Command chartered ship, for their safety.
The Embassy said a small team of engineering and bridge personnel would remain aboard the Guardian to work with the assessment team “in an attempt to free the Guardian with minimal environmental impact.”
“The remaining seven sailors, which include the commanding officer and executive officer, will also be transferred if conditions become unsafe,” the Embassy said.
The Embassy said US authorities “are in close communication” with their Philippine counterparts, including the Tubbataha Management Office.