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PUERTO PRINCESA CITY, Philippines - A week after the USS Guardian minesweeper ran aground on Tubbataha Reef Natural Park, authorities have finally decided to extricate the ship from the coral by lifting it with a crane and then transferring the vessel to a barge.
"Today we decided it is going to be lifted. We will wait for the arrival of two crane ships from Singapore. The boat will be lifted and brought to a shipyard," Philippine Coast Guard spokesman Cmdr Armand Balilio said in a press conference here on Thursday, January 24.
Balilio explained the operation will not begin until early February, when the Singapore-based maritime salvage company hired by the US Navy is ready to conduct the extrication.
After ruling out other options such as dragging the ship from the reef with a tugboat or dismantling it piece by piece, the final decision to lift the vessel was warranted by a preliminary assessment on the damage on the hull.
The USS Guardian crashed into the reef on January 17 and two days later was turned 90 degrees by strong currents and winds.
Salvage operation 'very complicated'
Also present at the Puerto Princesa press conference was US Navy Rear Admiral Thomas Carney, who just arrived from Singapore to take over the coordination of the salvage operation for the Americans.
Carney confirmed that "the option that we hoped to be able to tow the ship off the reef is not available."
"It's too badly damaged. It's got hull penetrations in several places, and there's a significant amount of water inside the ship right now," said the rear admiral, who heads the US Navy's logistics group in the Western Pacific.
He described the salvage operation as "a very deliberate, complicated process" involving at least two more US Navy vessels that could take up to two weeks to complete.
"It depends on the environmental conditions out there as to how safely we can proceed," he said of the timeline.
The USS Guardian's hull sustained serious damage from the crash and is currently flooded in several parts, a crucial factor that led authorities to reject towing the vessel into deeper waters.
Balilo stressed there is no danger of an oil spill and there is an ongoing operation to pump the remaining fuel from the ship's tanks.
"We will continue that operation today, taking out the fuel from the ship to prevent serious marine damage," he said.
Carney explained that the USS Guardian had listed after being battered by huge waves, and the most pressing issue was to remove 57,000 litres (15,000 US gallons) of fuel.
"The first priority is to get the fuel out of the ship as soon as possible," Carney told reporters.
'Too early' to assess damage
Two days after the park management announced that it will immediately fine the US Navy for entering the area without permission and other violations of the law governing Tubbataha, the Americans have not yet said a word on whether or when they will pay.
"The Tubbataha Protected Area Management Board is still waiting for their commitment to pay. So far we haven't received a formal reply from the US side," said park superintendent Angelique Songco.
Carney said it was too early to determine how much damage the USS Guardian has caused in Tubbataha, a UNESCO World Heritage site in a remote part of the Sulu Sea famous for its rich marine life and coral that rival Australia's Great Barrier Reef.
The incident has stoked anger in the Philippines, with the US Navy yet to explain why it was sailing through a protected marine sanctuary en route to Indonesia.
Carney declined to explain why the Guardian was sailing in the area, saying that was still the subject of investigation, however he repeated a US Navy apology made last weekend.
"We express our deepest regret that we are in this situation, and we are committed to removing the ship from the reef as soon as possible," he said. - Rappler.com, with reports from Agence France-Presse