1,000 sq meters of Tubbataha reef damaged by US ship – gov’t


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(UPDATED) About 1,000 sqm of coral was damaged by the USS Guardian, US and Philippine divers observed

ENVIRONMENTAL DISASTER. The USS Guardian destroyed at least 1,000 sqm of coral, more than 1% of Tubbataha's marine protected area mandated by law. Graphic by Emil Mercado

MANILA, Philippines (UPDATED) – About 1,000 sqm of coral was damaged by the US ship that ran aground last week on Tubbataha Reef Natural Park, the government said on Wednesday, January 23.

There was “severe damage” to the rudder and propeller of the USS Guardian and about 1,000 sqm of the 97,030 hectare protected area, presidential spokesperson Edwin Lacierda told reporters. (Editor’s note: This story originally reported that the 1,000 sqm of reef were equivalent to over 1% of the protected area. In fact 1,000 sqm is equivalent to 0.0001% of 97,0030 hectares. We apologize for the error.)

Lacierda said that US Navy and Philippine divers began to assess the extent of damage to the ship and determine the extent of damage to the reef itself.

He added that President Benigno Aquino III is receiving regular updates.

“The important thing [now] is assessing the extent of the damage to the ship” and to figure out the best way to “salvage [the USS Guardian] with minimal damage to the reef.”

The American minesweeper, which ran aground on January 17 after ignoring warnings by park management, is currently flooded and with no crew members on board.

US will take responsibility

Lacierda explained that why the salvage operations are ongoing, the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) will be coordinating with the US Embassy for political matters while the Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) is acting as “marine protection agency.”

Regarding the damage assessment, the presidential spokesperson clarified that first there will be a pre-salvage survey and then another one after the ship is pulled out of the reef.

The second assessment will determine the final extent of the damage and fines if ever to be paid by the US Navy.

STILL STUCK. Philippine Air Force aerial image of the USS Guardian near the upper side of Tubbataha's South Atoll. Photo courtesy of AFP WESCOM

Asked if the Philippines will get justice after what happened, Lacierda told reporters that the United States will own up to its actions.

“[Transportation Secretary] Jun Abaya said it goes without saying. They are a strategic ally and I think they are cognizant of their responsibility to our government and also to a very important environmental site,” he said.

3 options to remove vessel

On site in the Sulu Sea, the USS Guardian remains stuck on the reef while officials and divers discuss ways to extricate the vessel.

The salvage operations are being led by a Singapore-based private contractor hired by the US Navy, PCG spokesman Cmdr Armando Balilo told Rappler on Wednesday.

Balilo explained that 3 options are being considered for taking the ship out of the reef:

  1. Remove it by pulling and towing it away using tugboats
  2. Lift it with a crane and load onto a salvage barge
  3. Cut it into pieces so the vessel can be dismantled piece by piece

“We will know by tomorrow what they have decided,” Balilo said, referring to the expected arrival of US Vice Admiral Tom Carney to take over the operation.

Carney will visit the site and then hold a press conference, the first time the US Navy will face the Philippine media since the crash.

Balilo added that the PCG’s role in the salvage operation is to provide divers and supervise to prevent a possible fuel leak from the ship. Rappler.com

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