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PUERTO PRINCESA, Palawan – The critical process of fuel extraction from the grounded USS Guardian in Tubbataha Reef is now underway and may be expected to be completed within 48 hours, according to the Philippine Coast Guard. However, the full extent of the damage to the UNESCO-declared marine wildife preserve won't be known until the ship is removed by the end of January.
PCG Spokesperson Cmdr. Armand Balilo told GMA News Online that, as of Thursday morning, US Navy salvage personnel have already begun draining the Guardian of its fuel.
He said that this was crucial to eliminate the danger of oil spills and make the ship lighter, lessening its impact on the reef as well as making it easier to remove.
However, Balilo said that the actual extent of the damage to the reef cannot be determined until divers are able to survey the entire area presently occupied by the ship.
"Kapag natanggal na yung ship, tsaka namin maa-assess at pwedeng sukatin (ang buong damage)," Balilo said.
The damage had earlier been conservatively estimated at 1,000 square meters, but World Wildlife PHL's Lory Tan, who has been studying aerial photographs of the grounded US ship, estimates the damage as closer to 2400 square meters.
At least two privately-contracted lift ships are currently underway from Singapore and are scheduled to arrive on January 30 to help extract the Guardian. Until then, Balilo said that the ship is expected to remain stable and hopefully won't do further damage.
On January 20, three days after the Guardian ran aground, continuous waves from the north caused the ship to shift 90 degrees, but it has remained in this position since then.
"Hindi natin alam, mahirap mag-speculate sa day-to-day operations. Pero as of now, walang movement ang ship," he explained.
Meanwhile, the Guardian's design as a minesweeping vessel may actually have helped lessen damage to the atoll, according to Lt. Cmdr. Glenn Pacheco, Operations Officer of the Palawan Coast Guard.
"It has a wooden hull, so yun yung nasira nung tumama sya (sa reef)," Pacheco explained.
He pointed out that minesweeping vessels normally have wooden hulls encased in a very thin outer layer of aluminum, so as not to attract magnetic underwater mines. Had the Guardian's hull been made of metal plating, as in other military ships, it would have plowed straight into the reef, ripping it apart.
Pacheco also said that minesweepers are designed with fuel tanks elevated higher above the water compared to other vessels as a precaution against underwater mines. This therefore made the fuel tanks more accessible for extraction.
However, Pacheco said that an assessment has yet to be made of the integrity of the Guardian's ballast tanks —compartments that are designed to be flooded with seawater, to help stabilize the ship.
He said that the ballast tanks would need to be emptied so that recovery crews can safely lift the ship. It is hoped that the water contained in the tanks is just local seawater, or else it might contain organisms that are not indigenous to the area and which may harm the corals.
If so, then the salvage crews would have to find a way to safely empty the tanks.
But "the salvage crews have standard procedures depending on the situation," Pacheco assured.
Originally, three options were being considered for extracting the Guardian: lifting, towing, or dismemberment.
According to personnel on the ground, towing would have been the most straightforward option if only a small portion of the ship were stuck on the reef, or if the ship were buoyant enough to permit it.
On the other hand, dismemberment was being considered as an option only if there was no other way to remove it than by breaking it up into smaller, lighter, more manageable chunks.
However, according to Balilo, it was decided to lift the entire ship off the atoll because this would have the least negative impact on the reef.
"The foremost consideration was the safety of the reef," Balilo said. "Ang concern talaga namin is yung reef mismo."
He said the current lull in the monsoon-related weather is facilitating the fuel-extraction operation.
Depending on weather conditions, the extraction may be completed on Friday or early Saturday, Balilo said.– HS, GMA News