Crane ship bound for Tubbataha, says PCG

Carlos Santamaria

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(UPDATED) Final approval of the salvage operation is still pending on concerns regarding how one of the floating cranes will be anchored

STUCK ON THE REEF. This handout photo taken and released on January 25, 2013 by Tubbataha Management Office shows an aerial shot of US navy minesweeper USS Guardian (R) at the Tubbataha reef after it ran aground, while another US vessel stands by. AFP PHOTO/Tubbataha Management Office

MANILA, Philippines (UPDATED) – The Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) agreed to the US Navy’s plan to extricate the USS Guardian stuck in Tubbataha Reef Natural Park by cutting the ship into pieces, a spokesman said on Tuesday, February 5.

PCG spokesman Cmdr Armando Balilo told Rappler that the plan to pull out the minesweeper by dismantling it and then transferring the sections to a barge using giant cranes is still under review but it has generally been agreed upon by all the stakeholders.

Final approval of the salvage operation however has not yet been given as there are still concerns regarding how one of the floating cranes will be anchored, he added.

Balilo explained that the Singapore-based SMIT Borneo — which arrived in the Philippines on Sunday, February 3, and is currently on its way to Tubbataha from Puerto Princesa, Palawan — may not be allowed to anchor close to the USS Guardian.

“It may cause even more damage, so now we are discussing if [the floating crane] should be anchoring on the reef or just go near [the American vessel] without anchoring,” he said.

A 2nd crane also from Singapore is expected to arrive in the next few days to assist in the salvage operation of the USS Guardian, which ran aground on January 17 inside the protected area of the UNESCO World Heritage site and paradise for divers.

TUBBATAHA BOUND. The SMIT Borneo, a floating crane from a Singapore-based salvage company, left Puerto Princesa on midnight and is on its way to Tubbataha. Photo courtesy of Philippine Coast Guard

Crane ship used in similar maritime accidents

The Dominica-flagged SMIT Borneo, a 110×30 m work pontoon built in Germany in 1974, belongs to the Singaporean branch of SMIT Salvage, one of the world’s leading salvage company based in Rotterdam, the Netherlands.

SMIT Salvage provides emergency response, wreck removal and environmental care services all around the world and has additional global offices in Houston, Texas and Cape Town, South Africa.

The salvage company has been hired to work on a number of high-profile maritime accidents, such as the Italian cruise ship Costa Concordia, which crashed off the island of Giglio with over 4,000 passengers on board in January 2012.

As for the SMIT Borneo, the floating crane was last used in a major salvage operation in October 2011, when the MV Rena, a Greek container ship ran aground near Astrolabe Reef in northern New Zealand.

The oil spill that followed the crash is considered New Zealand’s worst ever maritime environmental disaster, but  American authorities have ruled out a possible fuel leak from the USS Guardian.

In order to prevent a spill, the US Navy pumped all the fuel and removed potentially toxic substances like lubricants or paint before a salvage plan was even drawn up.

More than 15,000 gallons diesel oil and other chemicals were safely transferred to the Vos Apollo, a Malaysian tugboat hired by the Americans.

MARITIME DISASTER. The USS Guardian has damaged a considerable portion of Tubbataha's precious coral even if there is no oil spill. Photo courtesy of US Navy

US insists will pay ‘adequate compensation’

The Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) on Tuesday said that a series of meetings between representatives from both countries have been held to discuss the incident since the grounding of the ship.

During the last encounter on Monday, US Ambassador Harry Thomas told Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario that the United States will provide “adequate compensation” to the Philippines for the Philippines for the damage caused to the reef by the vessel.

The amount of the compensation or when it will be paid was not specified.

According to the same DFA statement, the government informed the Americans that the Philippine Coast Guard is already conducting its own independent investigation, following standard procedures and resolutions of the International Maritime Organization.

The probe is to “establish the circumstances and causes of the grounding on Tubbataha Reef and to formulate safety measures to prevent a repetition of this incident” and both governments have agreed to cooperate with the investigators.

A similar investigation was ordered by the US Navy days after the crash, and initial findings blamed faulty navigation charts.

Regarding the salvage plan, the DFA said that once it will be shares with the Tubbataha Management Office once it approved by the PCG and the consensus is that “preventing further damage to the reef is a top priority.”

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