Plans to remove the stranded United States Navy minesweeper USS Guardian from the Tubbataha Reef are expected to be finalized today, with a private Singaporean salvage company instructed to prioritize minimizing further environmental damage in the area.
This developed as the US government yesterday reiterated its regrets over the grounding of the USS Guardian on Tubbataha Reef and vowed to work with Philippine authorities to address the damage done to the World Heritage Site.
“On behalf of the United States government, I wish to convey to the Philippine government and people my profound regret over the grounding of the USS Guardian on Tubbataha Reef. This was an unfortunate accident, and I recognize the legitimate concerns over the damage caused to a unique and precious wonder of nature, internationally recognized for its beauty and biological diversity,” US Ambassador Harry Thomas said in a statement.
“We will work collaboratively with the Philippines to assess the damage and to take steps to address the environmental issues that have arisen from this incident,” he said.
The Department of Transportation and Communications (DOTC) said Task Force Tubbataha was working closely with the US Navy and SMIT Singapore Pte Ltd, which are both sending several vessels to help in the delicate operation.
The removal of the ship, however, is not expected to be done until Jan. 30, when all vessels involved in the operation are scheduled to arrive at the site.
“Part of the salvage plan is to use a crane with high lifting capacity for the vertical removal of the stranded ship instead of just dragging it to avoid incurring more damage to the reef,” Transportation Secretary Joseph Emilio “Jun” Abaya said in a statement.
The DOTC said the US Navy would send a salvage vessel, the USNS Salvor, to the Sulu Sea on Saturday to aid in the removal.
SMIT Singapore, the company hired by the US Navy to lead to operation, would send SMIT Cyclone and SMIT Borneo. Both vessels are expected to arrive on Jan. 30.
Securing the ship
“They (US Navy, Philippine Navy and salvage company from Singapore) continued to secure the top side of the ship, removed all small items and secured other items that were left behind,” Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) Commandant Rear Admiral Rodolfo Isorena was quoted by the DOTC as saying.
Isorena said the removal of small items from the stranded ship was delayed for several hours—from 7 a.m. to 10 a.m. on Thursday—due to erratic weather conditions.
US Navy personnel started to transfer USS Guardian items and its crew’s personal effects to another US Navy ship, USNS Mustin.
Another ship, Vos Apollo, was able to get into position and conducted partial defueling of the USS Guardian.
Fuel tank drained
The stranded ship’s fuel tank was drained at a rate of 80 gallons per minute. It will take three defueling tanks to drain the USS Guardian. The DOTC said all salvage operations were still at the mercy of sea and weather conditions.
Earlier, the inspection team assessed that approximately 1,000 square meters of corals were severely damaged due to the incident.
Several militant groups have picketed the US Embassy in Manila to demand an apology from President Barack Obama and the US Navy. Some lawmakers have also called for the investigation of the incident.
The US ambassador said he was “deeply grateful” to the Philippine Coast Guard and Philippine Navy for their “close cooperation” with the US authorities who will also help in the investigation.
“We will continue our combined efforts to resolve this matter. As the investigation of this matter proceeds, we hope to continue our close coordination with the Philippine government to understand precisely what happened so we can ensure there will be no recurrence,” Thomas said.