US invites PH to Tubbataha probe

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12:52 AM March 22nd, 2013

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USS Guardian on Tubbataha Reef. INQUIRER FILE PHOTO

MANILA, Philippines—The United States government has invited Philippine officials to Japan for a briefing on the investigation into the grounding of the USS Guardian in Tubbataha Reef, a World Heritage site, in January.

“The Philippine Navy and the Coast Guard have been invited to come to Japan to also partake and be briefed on the (ongoing) investigation,” said Lt. Col. Jason Chamness, Deputy Chief of the Jusmag-Philippines.

Chamness said the investigation into the grounding of the vessel had “gotten far enough” to allow the US to conduct a preliminary briefing for the Philippine officials.

“We are coordinating (the briefing) and they’ll probably go back a couple more times as the investigation continues,” Chamness said.

Asked if the investigation had given US authorities an idea of how the grounding of the US Navy minesweeper happened, US Ambassador to Manila Harry Thomas said: “The investigation is ongoing. Its clear intention is to find out what happened. We will share the details with President Aquino and Philippine government investigators.”

Thomas also apologized again for the incident, which destroyed an estimated 4,000 square meters of coral in the reef.

Thomas said the US government was “spending lots of funds” to remove the ship from the reef and was intent on finding solutions to avoid a similar incident happening again, such as conducting symposia and conferences.

He noted that there had been 11 accidents at the reef, including two involving Philippine ships between 2011 and 2013, before the USS Guardian ran aground in Tubbataha.

Years to repair reef

“When it’s over, we will assess the damage with the Philippine government and see how it can be repaired. We know honestly that it will take years to repair that part of the reef,” Thomas said.

The dismantling of the USS Guardian continued Thursday with the cutting and removal of a number of “small compartments below the main deck,” according to the Philippine Coast Guard (PCG).

Citing a report from the PCG-led Task Force Tubbataha in Palawan, Coast Guard spokesman Lt. Commander Armand Balilo, also chief of its public affairs office, said “the salvage operation progressed with works mainly below the main deck.”

The international salvage team contracted by the US Navy to remove the ship from the reef also “cut and opened a portion of the main deck to get access to the ship’s hull,” Balilo said.

Weather good for cutting

In a text message to the Inquirer, Balilo said the team continued “cutting and securing pipelines and other pipes connected to different compartments below the main deck.”

The task force, headed by Commodore Enrico Efren Evangelista, also chief of the PCG Palawan district, reported to Coast Guard headquarters in Manila that the “weather has been very favorable to continue the salvage operation,” noting that “wind speeds [were] 11 to 16 knots [with] waves of 0.3 to 1.2 meters in the Tubbataha area.”

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