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Minesweeper to be cut up for removal from Philippine reef

The USS Guardian sits aground on the Tubbataha Reef in the Philippines, Jan. 22, 2013. Work to cut up and remove the ship is expected to begin Friday.

SASEBO NAVAL BASE, Japan — The Navy minesweeper that got stuck on a reef off the coast of the Philippines will have to be dismantled and removed in sections, a process that is expected to take more than a month, Navy officials said Wednesday.

The salvage plan is still under review by the Philippine Coast Guard, but it likely means the end for the 23-year-old USS Guardian.

“Our naval architecture and salvage experts have reviewed all possible alternatives, and our only supportable option is to dismantle the damaged ship and remove it in sections,” Pacific Fleet spokesman Lt. Anthony Falvo wrote in an email to Stars and Stripes.

“We have the right team of experienced professionals to conduct this complex operation and to ensure that it is done safely while minimizing damage to the surrounding marine environment. We expect the first floating crane to arrive in a few days and the dismantling to take over a month — we will work to conduct the operation as quickly as safety, weather and environmental protection allows.”

No one was injured when the ship ran aground around 2:25 a.m. on Jan. 17 while transiting the Sulu Sea after a port visit in Subic Bay. The crew of 79 was removed the next day as a safety precaution.

Over the last two weeks, the 224-foot ship has slid around on Tubbataha Reef, a World Heritage Site, damaging the reef and causing hull breaches. Its compartments have taken on water as crews worked to remove hazardous materials and secure items for removal.

Navy officials said earlier this week they had removed 15,000 gallons of diesel fuel, 671 gallons of lubricating oil, dry food stores, paints and solvents and the crew’s personal effects.

After the fuel was removed, seawater was pumped into the tanks to counter the ship’s newfound buoyancy, Task Force Unit Guardian spokesman Lt. Cmdr. James Stockman said Tuesday from Manila. Kevlar bands were used to reinforce the ship’s structure after almost two weeks of punishing seas had worn away much of the hull’s fiberglass coating.

“The Philippine Coast Guard is going to review the salvage plan of the U.S. Navy, and more information will be forthcoming soon,” Stockman wrote in an email to Stars and Stripes. “The ship is currently stable, and we continue with our preparations for removal of Guardian from the reef.”

An investigation into the cause of the grounding is ongoing, and the crew arrived back at their homeport of Sasebo on Monday. Two contracted heavy lift ships fitted with cranes from Singapore are en route and will remove the damaged ship.

Rear Admiral Jeffrey Harley, commander of CTF-76, said Monday that the Navy is looking at what effects being down one forward-deployed mine countermeasure ship might have on operations in the Pacific.

The Guardian was the fifth of 14 Avenger-class mine countermeasure ships to be put into service, according to their website. Four are forward-deployed to Sasebo, Japan; the others are based in Bahrain and San Diego. They are scheduled to be replaced in the coming years by Littoral Combat Ships, which can be fit with a minesweeping package but have been hampered by cost overruns, design deficiencies and delays.

burkem@pstripes.osd.mil

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