Salvage plan for USS Guardian approved, preventing further damage 'a top priority'
Crane ship arrives in Palawan for USS Guardian extrication. The crane ship SMIT Borneo from Singapore (left) arrives off the coast of Palawan on Sunday to help extricate the USS Guardian from Tubbataha Reef. The USS Guardian ran aground in the Sulu Sea after it got stuck on the World Heritage site on Jan. 17. The US Navy ship, with a crew of 80, had just completed a port call at Subic Bay when the accident occurred. Reuters/PHL Coast Guard/HO
As of Tuesday evening, February 5, the Tubbataha Protected Area Management Board (TPAMB) has approved a salvage plan for safely removing the minesweeper USS Guardian from Tubbataha Reef while minimizing further damage to the UNESCO-declared World Heritage Site.
In a phone interview with GMA News Online, TPAMB board member and WWF Philippines CEO Lorenzo "Lory" Tan confirmed that late afternoon talks ended with finalized plans to remove the Guardian in sections by using salvage ships anchored up to a kilometer away.
Tan explained that one of the main concerns was that the salvage ships would need to drop anchor to ensure their stability in the water as they go about their operations. However, dropping anchor within the reef's protected area is strictly prohibited by law, according to Tan, because this would invariably damage the delicate marine environment.
But members of the salvage team were able to recommend an alternative solution: to anchor the ships up to a kilometer away, in deeper water where there is no danger of hitting any coral.
"We have agreed to an anchorage plan that will situate the main anchor about one kilometer away from the reef wall at a depth of 2,500 feet. This will be reinforced with a secondary anchor at 900 feet away from the reef," Tan said.
"Once you get to that depth [2,500 feet], there's no life because there's no photosynthesis. It's a benign area"—making it safe to drop anchor there.
He did, however, say that the TPAMB approved the plan with the following conditions:
- All nets used to contain salvage debris should have holes small enough to prevent accidental by-catch of marine fauna
- All captains and crews should know and be held accountable for compliance with Tubbataha Park rules
- There will be joint pre- and post-salvage assessments
- There will be on-board observers from the Tubbataha Management Office (TMO) on all salvage vessels, to monitor compliance with Park rules
Damage prevention: 'Top priority'
Meanwhile, in a joint statement, US and Philippine authorities reassured the public that preventing further damage to the reef is "a top priority."
"The two governments agreed to continue to work closely together as the salvage operation and the investigation into the grounding proceed. Both governments agree that preventing further damage to the reef is a top priority," they said.
Since the USS Guardian ran aground on January 17, the Philippines and the US have been holding meetings involving representatives from the Philippine Departments of Foreign Affairs (DFA), Justice (DOJ), and Transportation and Communications (DOTC); the Philippine Coast Guard (PCG); and the US Navy and the US Embassy.
At a meeting at the DFA on Monday, US Ambassador Harry Thomas Jr. reiterated his regrets over the incident and assured DFA Secretary Albert del Rosario that the US will provide appropriate compensation for damage to the reef caused by the ship.
For its part, the Philippine government said the PCG had commenced its independent inquiry into the grounding of the USS Guardian.
Investigation of causes
Investigation of causes
The PCG also formed the Maritime Casualty Investigation Team (MCIT) in accordance with the standard procedures and resolutions of the International Maritime Organization (IMO) on serious maritime incidents.
The MCIT is seeking to establish the causes of the grounding on Tubbataha Reef and to formulate safety measures to prevent a repeat of this incident.
"The United States is coordinating closely with PCG in the salvage operation to extract the USS Guardian from the reef," the two sides said in their joint statement. — BM, GMA News