PUERTO PRINCESA CITY—An earlier plan to drag the stuck US minesweeper Guardian off the reefs of Tubbataha, where it has been stuck for eight days, was ruled out on Thursday and authorities decided to lift the vessel onto a barge.
Following a conference here of the Tubbataha Task Force, the Philippine group coordinating with the US Navy for the removal of the minesweeper from the reef, Philippine naval authorities and their US counterparts said two salvor ships were coming from Singapore to lift the vessel off the water.
Lt. Commander Armand Balilo, Philippine Coast Guard spokesperson, said the US Navy needed to remove thousands of liters of oil from the USS Guardian because the vessel was too badly damaged to be towed away.
“Today we decided it is going to be lifted. We will wait for the arrival of two crane ships from Singapore. The [Guardian] will be lifted and brought to a shipyard,” Balilo told reporters here.
The decision to lift the grounded minesweeper was arrived at following a preliminary assessment on the hull damage absorbed by the ship when it rammed through coral reefs in the southern atoll of the Tubbataha Reefs on Jan. 18.
“The option that we hoped to be able to tow the ship off the reef is not available,” Rear Admiral Thomas Carney, head of the US Navy’s logistics group in the western Pacific, said.
“It’s too badly damaged. It’s got hull penetrations in several places and there’s a significant amount of water inside the ship right now,” Carney said.
He said the Guardian had listed after being battered by huge waves and the most pressing issue was to remove 57,000 liters of fuel.
“The first priority is to get the fuel out of the ship as soon as possible,” Carney said.
No oil spill
Balilo eased fears of an oil spill, saying work was going on to remove the fuel from the ship.
Members of the Philippine Coast Guard and Philippine Navy are assisting the US Navy in removing the fuel from the minesweeper.
“We will continue that operation today, taking out the fuel from the ship to prevent serious marine damage,” Balilo said.
So far, no trace of an oil spill has been detected in the area, Balilo said.
Carney described the salvage operation as “a very deliberate, complicated process” involving at least two more US Navy vessels that could take up to two weeks to complete.
“It depends on the environmental conditions out there as to how safely we can proceed,” he said of the timeline.
The operation can be expected to start in early February, as the salvor ships are arriving late this month.
The US Navy had considered three options to free the minesweeper from the reef, according to Transportation Undersecretary Eduardo Oban Jr.
“The first one is to drag the ship from the reef. Second is to lift it and third is to just cut it into several pieces,” Oban, a former Philippine military chief, said on Wednesday.
The US Navy decided to take the second option and bring the vessel to a shipyard somewhere for repairs.
The US Navy has apologized for the grounding of the vessel in the Unesco World Heritage-listed Tubbataha Reefs.
The Philippine government reported this week that 1,000 square meters of reef had been damaged. That is equivalent to roughly 1 percent of Tubbataha, a protected site in a remote part of the Sulu Sea, famous for its rich marine life and coral that rival Australia’s Great Barrier Reef.
The accident has stoked anger in the Philippines, with environmentalists and lawmakers demanding to know why the Guardian was in the protected area in the Sulu Sea.
Carney declined to explain why the Guardian was sailing in the area, saying that was still under investigation.
But he repeated the US Navy’s apology made last weekend.
“We express our deepest regret that we are in this situation and we are committed to removing the ship from the reef as soon as possible,” he said.
The Tubbataha park management said the captain of the ship ignored warnings that it was nearing the reef.
The agency recommended the US Navy be fined for various violations, including illegally entering the marine park.
Angelique Sonco, Tubbataha park superintendent, said on Thursday that US officials had not said if they would pay the fines.
Malacañang has given assurance, however, that the Philippine government will talk to the Americans about damages. With reports from Jerry E. Esplanada in Manila and AFP