US eyes lifting damaged ship from Tubbataha

By Dharel Placido,

Posted at Jan 21 2013 03:58 PM | Updated as of Jan 21 2013 11:58 PM

MANILA, Philippines – The United States is looking into "lifting" its warship which ran aground at the protected Tubbataha Reef last week.

At a press briefing in Malacañang on Monday, Transportation and Communications Secretary Joseph Emilio Abaya said one of the plans being considered by the US Navy is to lift the grounded USS Guardian from the reef using a crane.

"They made mention of the information of the possibility of bringing a heavy-lifting ship - a 1,000-ton capacity crane that if the ship couldn’t be tugged anymore, it will be literally be lifted via ship and put on board another ship," Abaya said.

Abaya, however, said he has no information yet as to where the salvor (ship used in salvage) that will extricate the grounded ship will come from.

"I tried to ask that, I wasn’t able to get [an answer]. Neither was [Naval Forces West] commander Commodore Rustom Pena privy to the information where the salvor will be coming from," he said.

The USS Guardian, a 68-meter-long Avenger-class ship, has been grounded at the UNESCO World Heritage Site since Thursday.

It had come from a port call in Subic Bay and was on its way to Indonesia when it ran aground the Tubbataha Reef. Authorities have yet to measure the extent of the damage to the reef.

The US Navy blamed a faulty navigation chart data that may have misplaced the location of the Tubbataha Reef.

No probe yet

Abaya said the first "logical" move is to extricate the ship from the site before an investigation into the cause of the grounding is made. "It would be too dangerous to investigate while at the same time pull out the vessel.”

"Once the ship is pulled out, then assessing the damage to the reef or whatever damage to certain species or habitats or breeding areas will likewise be done."

Abaya said the Philippine government expects the US, "being a responsible nation and a strong ally," to honor its financial obligations.

"I assume it goes without saying," he said.

Abaya said the Philippine government is in close coordination with the American authorities. He added the Philippines will not allow the US to conduct the salvage operations on its won.

The government has also formed a fact-finding body to look into the incident, which has triggered anger among environmentalists and groups opposing the presence of US forces in the country.

The Philippine Coast Guard, meanwhile, has been tasked to ensure that no oil spill occurs in the prized environmental site.

Ship already heavily grounded

According to Abaya, latest information from the site said the ship was already "heavily grounded" on the reef. This means that chances of the ship damaging more coral reefs have been minimized.

"When you say heavily grounded, you can assume a huge majority or probably the entire side of the vessel is now in contact with the reef. The chances of moving is already minimized," he said. "No amount of waves or wind would further dislodge the ship from that position."

The Presidential Commission on the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFACOM) earlier said the Philippine government will demand an explanation from the US government and hold those responsible for the damage done to the reef.

VFACOM Executive Director Edilberto Adan also denied crew members of the US Navy ship that ran aground beginning Thursday have been released. He said the rescued crew members were taken aboard another US ship but have remained in the country as investigations continue.

The US Navy, for its part, apologized for the incident.

U.S. 7th Fleet Commander Vice Admiral Scott Swift said he "greatly regret(s) any damage this incident has caused to the Tubbataha Reef"

"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 said in a statement.