MANILA, Philippines—President Aquino approved Thursday the salvage operations plan submitted by the US Navy to use floating cranes to lift piece by piece its stranded minesweeper out of the Tubbataha Reefs in the Sulu Sea.
In a statement, Transportation Secretary Joseph Emilio Abaya said, “We have carefully reviewed the US Navy’s salvage operations plan and we were assured that among their priorities is to have no further damage to the Tubbataha Reefs.”
He said the DOTC had “considered several factors and imposed certain conditions before we gave clearance for the US Navy and commercial salvors it has commissioned to undertake the dismantling and vertical removal of the grounded US ship.”
“It was presented to [President Aquino] by Secretary Abaya and he has approved it,” said Communications Secretary Ricky Carandang at a briefing in Malacañang.
After getting the President’s approval, Abaya promptly issued a statement to formally announce the government’s acceptance of the salvage plan.
Asked if the plan had been modified in any way following discussions between Philippine and US officials, Carandang said the salvage plan was approved “as presented” by the US Navy.
He said the plan would follow “a general timeframe,” but declined to say how long the operation would take.
The vertical removal would be undertaken by the crane ship Smit Borneo, which arrived in Tubbataha Tuesday evening, to prevent further damage to the reefs in the Unesco World Heritage Site.
The ship has been drained of approximately 15,000 gallons of fuel and other dangerous fluids that may cause more harm to the environment, the Department of Transportation and Communications (DOTC) said.
Some 4,000 square meters of corals in the Tubbataha Reefs Natural Park have been damaged or affected by the grounded ship, prompting calls for the US government to do more besides paying fees.
Online users have supported a petition uploaded on Change.org, the world’s largest petition platform, calling on the United States to fund long-term rehabilitation of corals in Tubbataha, noting the protected area’s importance to global marine biodiversity.
Commodore Enrico Evangelista, Palawan’s Coast Guard district chief, said the crane ship had started rigging its anchors in deep waters, far from the damaged reef.
Until next month
Evangelista, who is part of the Task Force Tubbataha created by the DOTC, said the anchoring would take some time to land at the correct spot to ensure that no more corals were damaged.
“The complex and methodical salvage operations will last until next month unless weather conditions within the Tubbataha reef change,” the DOTC said.
It said the Philippine Coast Guard continued to conduct an independent inquiry to find out the real circumstances behind the grounding of the USS Guardian.
A Maritime Casualty Investigation Team (MCIT) was formed last week in accordance with its standard procedures on maritime incidents to gather physical and documentary evidence to determine why the US Navy vessel strayed into the protected area on Jan. 17.
The ship strayed even after several warnings from park rangers that it was treading a sheltered area.
The DOTC said the MCIT was working with the US Navy to gather technical data on the incident. The US Navy is conducting its own investigation in Japan, where the officers and crew of USS Guardian will be stationed while the inquiry is ongoing.