PUERTO PRINCESA CITY, Philippines – The removal of the minesweeper USS Guardian that got stuck in Tubbataha Reefs some two months ago was completed Saturday, two weeks ahead of date estimates initially made by both Philippine and US authorities.
Philippine Coast Guard Palawan District head Commander Enrico Efren Evangelista said the salvaging operation, that began right after the grounding in mid-January, took about 10 weeks to complete with the removal of the last major part of the ship, its stern, on Saturday afternoon.
Manual cleanup operations involving US and Philippine Navy divers, however, continued, as plans to conduct a full blown reef damage assessment was being prepared.
The Tubbataha Management Office (TMO), which handled the parks’ operations including reef management and dive tour supervision, said the full damage assessment has been scheduled to begin April 8.
“The last major part of ex-USS Guardian, the stern section, was removed on Saturday afternoon. Next is to continue the manual debris cleanup at the grounding site. Then we will proceed to the next phase, which is the assessment and rehabilitation phase,” Evangelista said.
Tubbataha Park Superintendent Angelique Songco said the TMO would be directly involved in the assessment but they have yet to be advised of the next steps.
Authorities earlier estimated the salvaging operation to be completed by mid-April.
Evangelista said all the parts of the minesweeper recovered by the salvaging team were to be brought to an American naval facility in Sasebo, Japan.
Involved in the salvaging operations were USS Safeguard, USNS Wally Shirra, Jascon 25, Smit Borneo, Seabridge Barge, Tug Archon Tide, Tug Intrepid, Malayan Towage salvage vessel Trabajador-1, and USNS Washington Chamberlain.
Environmental groups have also reiterated earlier demands that the United States Navy pay for the damage, according to rules and procedures laid down by the park’s established rules.
The US has unilaterally announced it is committed to rehabilitate the damage done by the Guardian but has kept its discussions on the matter strictly confidential with the Department of Foreign Affairs and not with the TMO.
“We must follow the rule of law, RA (Republic Act No.) 10067 spells out the violations committed and the penalties that must be paid to the Tubbataha Management Office,” Jose Ma Lorenzo Tan, executive officer of the World Wildlife Fund, said in his social media site.
“The settlement or compensation package must be done as part of the implementation of the law that created Tubbataha as a protected area,” the Environmental Legal Assistance Center (ELAC) based in Palawan said in a statement.
Earlier, the militant group Pamalakaya urged the Philippine government to reject a reported offer of the US for a P95-million compensation package.
“The PhP95 million offer for compensation for the Tubbataha destruction and PhP 4.1 million for rehabilitation are dime-a-dozen offers compared to the extent of the environmental holocaust spurred by the grounding of USS Guardian to the UNESO declared national treasure,” Pamalakaya said in a press statement.