MANILA, Philippines – The United States Navy on Friday completed defueling the grounded USS Guardian, a crucial step before the vessel could be removed from the Tubbataha marine sanctuary without risk of leaking oil into the protected area.
The US Navy’s 7th Fleet, the minesweeper’s mother unit, said in a statement that the Vos Apollo, a Malaysian tugboat contracted for the job, has completed removing nearly 57,000 liters of diesel fuel from the ship on the eighth day of its stranding on the reef.
“To prevent potential environmental damage, the US Navy-led salvage team on January 25 completed removing all diesel fuel from the tanks of the mine countermeasures ship USS Guardian (MCM 5),” the 7th Fleet Statement said.
The Avenger-class ship had just come from a port call at the Subic Bay in Olongapo City and was en route to Indonesia when it ran aground on the Tubbataha Reef, a Unesco World Heritage site, before dawn on Jan. 17.
Concerned Philippine groups have questioned why the ship passed through the marine sanctuary in the vast Sulu Sea despite warnings from local authorities that they were not allowed to sail through the protected area. The US Navy cited possible errors in the ship’s navigational equipment as the likely cause of the grounding.
US officials have apologized for the incident, saying the American government recognized the value of the Tubbataha Reef, which the Philippines considers a “national treasure.” Philippine groups continue to press for US accountability for the damage to reef and violation of Philippine laws.
The US Navy, which now has a team on site to oversee salvage operations, bared this week that the ship had started to take in water, with its fiberglass-covered wooden hull already damaged. It has declared the ship not fit for use.
“The hull has been punctured and several areas of the ship have been flooded. The repeated pounding of heavy seas on the ship, which hampered recovery efforts in the days immediately following the grounding, has also resulted in the loss of much of the fiberglass coating on the port side,” the US Navy said.
It said two heavy-lift ship-borne cranes were expected to arrive on site on February 1, as salvors have decided that lifting, instead of towing, the vessel off the reef was the best option to remove the ship while minimizing further damage on the reef.
“The option that we had hoped to tow the ship off the reef is not available. The ship is too badly damaged,” said Rear Admiral Tom Carney, on-scene commander of the salvage operation.