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USS Guardian turns 90 degrees due to strong waves; more damage to reef feared

(Updated 12:43 a.m., 21 January 2013) The US Navy minesweeper USS Guardian, which ran aground on Tubbataha Reef in the Sulu Sea on Thursday, has turned 90 degrees due to strong currents, said Naval Forces West commander Commodore Joseph Rustom Peña. Peña said though no assessment of the area has been released, the ship's movement may have caused more damage to the reef's fragile corals, according to Cedric Castillo's report on Balitanghali Sunday. According to Peña, they are still awaiting the US Navy's assessment report on the incident. The US Navy has sent out four salvage tugboats to study how to remove the ship from the area. For their part, the Philippine Navy has sent out three boats and a few Philippine Coast Guard boats to stand by in case the US Navy needs assistance, said the report. In addition, the Philippine Navy has sent an oil spill response team in the area despite no signs of oil spill yet, it added. Presidential Commission on the Visiting Forces Agreement executive director Sec. Edilberto Adan said that concerned agencies have been coordinating with the US Navy to remove the ship from the protected area.
The USS Guardian ran aground on the protected Tubbataha Reef. Map from WWF Philippines
He has also ordered an investigation into the US Navy's inaccurate navigation that caused the minesweeper to cross a protected area. The US Navy cited the possibility of faulty digital navigation chart data that “misplaced the location” of the reef. “While the erroneous navigation chart data is important information, no one should jump to conclusions," said U.S. Pacific Fleet spokesman Capt. Darryn James according to a release from the US Pacific Fleet Public Affairs. "It is critical that the U.S. Navy conduct a comprehensive investigation that assesses all the facts surrounding the Guardian grounding." The USS Guardian, with a crew of 80, had just completed a port call in Subic Bay and was en route to Indonesia and then on to Timor-Leste to participate in a training exercise when the grounding occurred. 7th Fleet commander Meanwhile, through a news release from the U.S. 7th Fleet Public Affairs office, the fleet's commander Vice Admiral Scott H. Swift said that he regretted the grounding of the Guardian. “As a protector of the sea and a Sailor myself, I greatly regret any damage this incident has caused to the Tubbataha Reef,” said Vice Adm. Scott Swift. “We know the significance of the Tubbataha Reefs Natural Park and its importance as a World Heritage Site. Its protection is vital, and we take seriously our obligations to protect and preserve the maritime environment.” Swift also announced that Rear Adm. Thomas Carney, commander of Logistics Group Western Pacific, will take over as the on-scene commander to oversee the Guardian recovery operations on Monday, Jan. 21. Carney will embark on the destroyer USS Mustin (DDG 89), which, along with several other U.S. Navy vessels, will focus on “preventing any further environmental damage to the reef and surrounding marine environment.” The news release also said that once the U.S. ship is safely recovered by their navy, the U.S. government will continue to work with the Philippine government to assess the damage to the reef and the surrounding marine environment. The U.S. Navy also explained that the Guardian was on its way to Indonesia after leaving Olongapo City and cancelling a fuel stop at Puerto Princessa. According to the USS Guardian's official website, the mine-countermeasures ship is presently commanded by Lt. Cmdr. Mark Rice. Extending help The Philippine government sees no problem in extending help to the US Navy in extricating the USS Guardian from Tubbataha Reef, Malacañang said Sunday. Deputy presidential spokesperson Abigail Valte also declined to comment on the US Navy's liability in the incident for now, saying the Palace will wait for the investigation on the matter to finish. “Walang problema kung kakailanganin ang ating tulong,” Valte said on government-run dzRB radio. She said the Palace is also waiting for updates from the Department of Foreign Affairs on efforts to get the ship out of the reef with minimal damage. Valte declined to comment on the US Navy’s liability in the incident. “[It would be] prudent to wait for the results of the investigation by the [Departments of Foreign Affairs and National Defense] and other agencies concerned, then come up with recommendation,” she said. “Ang mas immediate concern is to get it out of there; extricate it with least possible damage,” she added. — Amanda Fernandez/BM/DVM, GMA News