MANILA, Philippines - The crane ship that can lift a grounded US Navy minesweeper from Tubbataha faces a dilemma: it must drop anchor – on the damaged coral reef.
Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) commandant Rear Admiral Rodolfo Isorena yesterday said the salvaging plan submitted by operators of Smit Borneo requires dropping anchor on the protected reef.
At Malacañang, presidential spokesman Edwin Lacierda said they have not set any deadline for the removal of the USS Guardian from Tubbataha.
“Both proposals of the United States Navy and the Smit Borneo agreed that chopping the USS Guardian into pieces (as the best recourse). But I see a problem in the procedure of extracting parts of the ship. In their salvaging plans, the Smit Borneo and US vessels are supposed to anchor and of course, we have to clear this procedure with the Tubbataha Management Foundation if they would allow the vessels to anchor,” Isorena said.
“Definitely if it would anchor, it would create more damage to the reef. We will see if there is a need or if it is possible that they no longer have to lower its anchor and it would not affect the stability while undergoing operations or when it lifts the cut pieces of the vessel,” he said.
Isorena said he would discuss the matter today with concerned groups including the US Navy, the TMO led by Angelique Songco, the Armed Forces of the Philippines-Western Command (AFP-Wescom), and Palawan officials.
He said they would have to consider other variables such as Smit Borneo’s maximum lifting capacity of 5,000 tons. He also said the crane would have to be pre-positioned some 20 to 30 meters from the Guardian. One remedy is to cut the minesweeper into pieces to make it easier for Smit Borneo to remove it from the reef.
This would entail longer salvaging operations, however. In such operation, the mast would go first, followed by the upper deck, bridge, smoke stack, second deck and lower deck. Only after these structures have been removed will they begin chopping the wooden hull of the ship.
He brushed aside fears that the 68-meter vessel could cause further damage to Tubbataha because its rudder is stuck between the corals.
There are currently three salvage ships at the site namely the M/T Trabajador of the Malayan Towage and Salvaging Corp., Vos Apollo of a Malaysian company based in Singapore, and US Navy’s USNS Salvor. The PCG Commandant said the US is eyeing a heavier crane ship to join the salvage operations.
“They are still finalizing the contract. But while the second crane ship has not yet arrived, they are already lightening up the vessel and removing the equipment,” he said.
The ship had been drained of 15,000 liters of automotive diesel oil. Also removed from the ship were hazardous materials such as paints, foodstuff, portable tanks, cables, life rings and other portable gears.
Lacierda, in a press briefing at Malacañang, said they want the USS Guardian removed from Tubbataha as soon as possible but stressed the operation should not be rushed unnecessarily.
“The instruction is as soon as possible. Certainly you would not want to create further damage so it has to be done meticulously but at the soonest possible time. That’s our preference and I think that’s being done also. Again, the extrication plans are being provided by the US Navy for vetting by the Philippine authorities,” he said.
TMO’s Songco said her group is dispatching a team to Tubbataha, as soon as the weather improves, to help and monitor salvage operations.
“The weather is not very good at all. We’ll have to wait for the big waves to calm down before the team can go there and check the site even before the crane ship, the Smit Borneo from Singapore, starts to help extricate the USS Guardian from Tubbataha Reef,” Songco said. She also expressed fears that the salvage operations would further damage reefs.
Over the weekend, the TMO said damage to the reef covered 4,000 square meters.
The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization declared the Tubbataha Reef a World Heritage Site in December 1993.
Palawan Gov. Baham Mitra, meanwhile, is protesting the reported exclusion of Filipinos from the team that assessed the damaged caused by the grounding of USS Guardian.
Mitra said the Tubbataha Protected Area Management Board would draft a letter of complaint on the matter.
“Why (was) an assessment done without the Philippine representative as agreed previously?” Mitra said in a text message. He said the board would soon inform Task Force Tubbataha about its plan to conduct its own assessment. The task force includes members of the US Navy.
Mitra said the Board has also rebuffed an offer from the Department of Foreign Affairs to mediate with the US Navy.
“We understand the DFA is just doing their job but the other camp has not even communicated nor recognized the Tubbataha Protected Area Management Board. Why should we make the first move when we are the aggrieved party?” he said.
The US Navy has attributed the grounding to “faulty navigation chart data.”
President Aquino said an investigation would continue even if the US has apologized for the incident.
The US has vowed to provide “appropriate compensation” to the Philippines for the damage caused by the ship.
“In addition to compensation, the US government is planning a number of other activities which will underscore its commitment to Tubbataha’s recovery and the protection of marine resources of the Philippines,” the US embassy said in a statement.
A militant group of fishermen, however, called the US government’s offer to donate $100,000 to help rehabilitate Tubbataha “highly insulting.”
“The US offer as extremely ridiculous, highly insulting to the collective intelligence of the people and deserving of across-the-nation condemnation,” said Salvador France, chairman of the Pambansang Lakas ng Kilusang Mamamalakaya ng Pilipinas (Pamalakaya), and Anakpawis party-list vice chairman Fernando Hicap in a joint statement.
“Is that the price the US government will pay for the destruction of 130,000 hectares of Tubbataha Reef covering more than 300 kinds of corals and 1,500 fish species in the UNESCO declared heritage site? Is that the price they will pay for violating the sovereign rights and collective patrimony of the people?” With Rhodina Villanueva, Ding Cervantes, Aurea Calica, Edu Punay, Alexis Romero