PUERTO PRINCESA, Palawan—Defense officials on Tuesday asked the United States to submit its salvage plan for the grounded USS Guardian for approval before undertaking a delicate salvage operation that would involve hoisting the stricken vessel onto a barge.
“We need to see and approve the salvage plan because we want to ensure that it will not inflict further damage on the coral reefs,” said Efren Evangelista, Philippine Coast Guard Commander of the Palawan District.
The Guardian has remained stuck in the south atoll of the Tubbataha Reefs in the Sulu Sea flank of Palawan after it ran aground in the extensive reef ecosystem of the country’s prime marine park last Jan. 17.
The US has apologized for the incident, saying it recognized the importance of the Unesco World Heritage site and vowed to pay for the damage inflicted on the reef.
Evangelista said further assessment is being undertaken to establish an updated estimate of the damage, earlier estimated at 1,000 square meters of corals.
The US initially projected the salvage operations to start within the week and would involve the use of two crane vessels from a Singapore-based salvage company, Evangelista said.
“We don’t have a time frame when the salvage operation can start as we are still waiting for the arrival of the salvage ship,” he said.
Earlier plans to tow the ship out into deeper waters were scuttled after the Guardian developed severe hull damage with water seeping into the ship.
US officials said late last week they would try to simply lift the vessel into a barge and bring it to a repair shipyard.
However, some local military officials said the plan to hoist the Guardian to a barge would be “difficult and could be dangerous.”
“I cannot comment officially but there are more practical options, including cutting the ship into smaller parts before lifting it out of the water,” said a naval official who asked not to be named because he cannot speak officially on behalf of the Task Force Tubbataha, which the government has formed to conduct an inquiry into the grounding of the US vessel.
The issue of the distressed minesweeper and the damage it continues to inflict on a protected marine sanctuary was apparently not on the agenda when a delegation of US lawmakers met with Philippine officials Tuesday.
Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) officials said the discussions focused on furthering longstanding defense and economic ties between the two countries.
Environmental issues were discussed broadly, with a focus on Philippine initiatives on preparing for and mitigating the impact of climate change, DFA officials said.
“There was a discussion of the leadership of the Philippines in terms of conservation of the environment,” said Carlos Sorreta, the assistant secretary for American Affairs.
Philippine Ambassador to the United States Jose Cuisia said there was not much opportunity to discuss the Tubbataha Reef incident. “(Environment Secretary Ramon Paje) mentioned it a bit but there was not much of a discussion,” Cuisia said.
Asked why the Guardian issue was not discussed, Assistant Secretary Raul Hernandez, the DFA spokesperson said he did not know.
Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario, Justice Secretary Leila de Lima, Energy Secretary Carlos Petilla and Paje led the hour-long discussion with the US delegation headed by US Rep. Ed Royce, chair of the foreign affairs committee of the US House of Representatives, and which included US Representatives Gregory Meeks, Vern Buchanan, Eliot Engel, Matthew James Salmon and Thomas Anthony Marino.
Meanwhile, Heherson Alvarez, commissioner of the Climate Change Commission, on Tuesday said the government should let the Unesco (the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) conduct an “independent assessment” of the damage caused by the Guardian on the Tubbataha Reef as it is in “the best position to estimate the required amount for the total recovery of the damaged reef, and the amount of work and time this will involve.” With reports from Tarra Quismundo and Jerry E. Esplanada