Tubbataha, US Navy divers to assess reef damage

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04:39 AM April 2nd, 2013

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The bow of the US minesweeper Guardian is lifted for placing on a barge during shipbreaking operation by a Singaporean salvor company to remove the ship from the protected Tubbataha Reef in the Sulu Sea. The Guardian ran aground on the reef in January, and has to be broken up to save the reef from further damage. PHILIPPINE COAST GUARD

MANILA, Philippines—As it awaits the assessment dives that would determine the extent of the damage to Tubbataha Reef, the Philippine government is sending a Coast Guard team to Japan to resume its investigation into the grounding of the USS Guardian on the atoll, government officials said yesterday.

After the last section of the US Navy minesweeper was lifted off the reef on Saturday, a “final dive” would be conducted to assess the damage wrought by the Jan. 17 incident, said Undersecretary Abigail Valte, deputy presidential spokesperson.

Transportation Secretary Joseph E.A. Abaya, for his part, said he expected a “series of dives” by the Philippine Coast Guard (PCG), Tubbataha Management Office (TMO) and the United States Navy to come up with an “accurate assessment” of the damage to the reef.

But the TMO said Monday only its divers and the US Navy’s would conduct the assessment dives.

Tubbataha Reefs Superintendent Angelique Songco said the TMO was organizing the assessment and it will be joined by the US Navy, represented by reserved officer and marine biologist Lee Shannon.

The Coast Guard on Monday confirmed this, saying the Tubbataha Reef management’s divers, not the PCG’s, would make the “final assessment” of the damage.

PCG spokesman Lt. Commander Armand Balilo, however, told the Inquirer the Coast Guard was “willing to assist the Tubbataha Management Office in conducting the reef damage assessment by providing resources like ships and rubber boats.”

Unesco assessment

Earlier, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Office (Unesco), which had declared the Tubbataha Reef a World Heritage Site, had volunteered a “team of experts” to assess the damage to the natural wonder.

But Task Force Tubbataha—composed of the PCG, TMO and other groups—did not take up the Unesco offer.

On Jan. 22, five days after the Guardian mistakenly entered the reef and promptly got stuck on it, 14 Coast Guards divers checked out the initial damage. They reported that up to 1,600 square meters of the reef had been damaged.

Meanwhile, the manual cleanup of the grounding site is expected to be completed Tuesday.

The reef damage assessment “will start as soon as the cleanup operation wraps up,” said Balilo.

Pending the assessment, Abaya said a three-man Coast Guard team, led by Adm. Louie Tuazon, would fly to Japan this week to resume the investigation of the grounding.

Since the Guardian’s crew refused to be personally interviewed, the Coast Guard team would be meeting with US Navy investigators, Abaya said.

“They have issues with a face to face [investigation]. That’s the agreement we had before they left. But we’re allowed to look at their investigation report and ask clarificatory questions,” he said in a phone interview.

The US-Navy contracted international salvage team finally lifted the stern (back) of the 68-meter warship off the reef on Saturday afternoon following weeks of a recovery operation that was often delayed by bad weather.

The cut sections of the ship were taken on the barge Seabridge S-700 to an undisclosed US military facility in Japan.

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