US Navy ship taking on water in Tubbataha Reef

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03:52 PM January 24th, 2013

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By: Matikas Santos, January 24th, 2013 03:52 PM

In this Jan. 22, 2013 photo released by the Philippine Coast Guard, coast guard divers approach the USS Guardian, a US Navy minesweeper, to assess the situation after it ran aground last week off Tubbataha Reef. AP

MANILA, Philippines – With around 1,000 square meters of corals already severely damaged by the stranded United States (US) Navy Ship in Tubbataha Reef, authorities are planning to use a crane to lift the ship instead of dragging it so as to avoid further damages.

A large ship from the US, the USNS Salvor, is expected to arrive on Friday to aid the salvage operations of the USS Guardian, Transportation and Communications Undersecretary Eduardo Oban Jr. said in a statement Thursday, citing US Rear Admiral Thomas Carney, commander of the Navy’s Logistics Group in the Western Pacific.

Before the USS Guardian can be removed from the Tubbataha Reef, about 56,000 liters (15,000 gallons) of fuel will be siphoned off to avoid spills, Carney had told reporters in a briefing.

The Philippine Coast Guard (PCG), US Navy, Philippine Navy, and environmentalist groups have joined efforts in removing the USS guardian, a 68-meter minesweeper that was stranded since January 17.

Carney said the ship is hard aground about 30 meters (yards) from the edge of the reef, a marine sanctuary that is a Unesco World Heritage Site.

“It’s got hull penetration in several places, and there is a significant amount of water inside the ship right now,” he said.

PCG chief Rear Adm. Rodolfo Isorena said efforts to remove the fuel have been hampered by the rough waters and another attempt will be made Thursday.

Carney said heavy items aboard the ship will be taken off to lighten it before the vessel is loaded on another ship or barge.

He said the operation could last a week or two.

“Part of the salvage plan is to use a crane with high lifting capacity to lift the stranded ship instead of dragging it that would cause more damage to the corals,” DOTC said in a statement.

“The crane is expected to arrive [on] the site on 30 January 2013,” it said.

Isorena reported to DOTC Secretary Joseph Emilio Abaya that the hull and propeller of the USS Guardian have been damaged already.

No oil leakage/spillage have been observed. The ship’s fuel tanks are also seen to be intact, Isorena said in the report.

The location of the ship was also being constantly monitored since strong and very rough waves have been reported in the area brought about by the north easterly winds, DOTC said.

The US Navy was also conducting hazardous materials assessment on the USS Guardian “to ensure nothing will spill within the area that would further damage the corals,” DOTC said.

Militant Umbrella group Bagong Alyansang Makabayan (Bayan) have reiterated their call for the termination of the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) amid the grounding incident.

“The real problem is the VFA. US ships are given a kind of ‘unlimited access’ to our waters that even Malacañang is clueless as to why the USS Guardian was in Tubbataha. The ability of the US Navy to ‘unlisurf’ our waters is too dangerous,” Bayan secretary general Renato Reyes Jr., said in a statement Thursday.

“To prevent similar incidents from happening, the VFA must go. Pending the termination of the VFA, no US ship should be allowed in our waters while the Tubbataha problem is yet resolved,” Reyes said.

“Malacañang is already assuming that the US will pay the Philippines for the 1,000 square meters damaged by the USS Guardian, yet up to now, there is no clear, categorical statement nor commitment from the US government that they will be paying a single cent,” Reyes added.

Carney said, “I want to express my deepest regret for the circumstances that we are all in right now.”

He said an investigation will look into all the factors that may have led to the grounding, including a reported faulty digital chart, sea conditions, weather and the state of the ship’s navigational equipment.

The Philippine government said it wants to fine the Navy for the damage and illegal entry into the marine sanctuary.

Angelique Songco, head of the Protected Areas Management Board, which is in charge of the reef, said the government imposes a fine of about $300 per square meter (yard) of damaged coral plus about the same amount for rehabilitation and other violations.

Carney said that after the ship is removed, the damage to the reef would be assessed and the two governments, which have close military and political ties, will discuss any claims. With a report from AP

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