SASEBO NAVAL BASE, Japan — The recovery of a grounded minesweeper off the coast of the Philippines is beginning to take shape as a Military Sealift Command salvage ship and a Malaysian tug are within days of reaching the USS Guardian, Navy officials said Wednesday.
The USNS Salvor is scheduled to arrive Thursday and the tug Vos Apollo is en route, Task Force Unit Guardian spokesman Lt. Cmdr. James Stockman wrote in an email to Stars and Stripes from Manila. Navy officials have not yet finalized their recovery plan, and there is no timetable for removal amid reports the ship has begun to take on water. The 255-foot Salvor dislodged the 567-foot guided-missile cruiser USS Port Royal in 2009 after it ran aground on a shoal off Honolulu.
The Guardian’s crew of 79 was removed Friday as a safety precaution. Some of those sailors will soon be headed back to their homeport of Sasebo Naval Base as Navy officials continue their investigation into the grounding, said the Guardian’s ombudsman, Kimberlyn Barr.
“The extent of the damage to the ship is currently being assessed,” Stockman said. “The U.S. Navy recognizes that Tubbataha Reef is a unique and treasured environment; we are taking all precautions to ensure that the recovery plan will have minimal environmental impact.”
No one was injured when the 224-foot Avenger-class mine countermeasure ship ran aground around 2:25 a.m. on Jan. 17 on Tubbataha Reef, about 80 miles east-southeast of Palawan Island. The ship was transiting the Sulu Sea after a port visit in Subic Bay when its bow got stuck on the reef in the protected park and World Heritage Site.
There have been no reported fuel leaks to date, Stockman said.
Park administrators have complained the ship should not have been in the protected area and did not inform them after it ran aground. They also said ship personnel did not respond to radio inquiries as to why they were there after being discovered about 3 a.m. When park rangers approached in a 30-foot patrol boat in an attempt to board the ship, sailors took armed battle positions and told them to contact the U.S. Embassy. The patrol boat then left.
“Soldiers with guns are threatening especially if you intend to investigate their presence in an off-limits area,” park administrator Angelique Songco said. “The embassy said nothing. The first press release was from the 7th Fleet website.”
Stockman said the crew was simply following protocol to protect the ship in its vulnerable state. Subsequent attempts to free the ship at high tide failed.
Navy officials said the investigation would include the possibility that faulty digital navigation chart data misplaced the location of the reef. That perplexed park administrators.
“We do not know why they were there,” Songco said. “The most updated navigational charts indicate that the protected area is off-limits to navigation. Why this was ignored, we still are not sure. Why a modern warship should run aground in one of very few islets in the Sulu Sea with a lighthouse is boggling.”
More Navy assets have arrived on scene, including a Navy assessment team, the guided missile destroyer USS Mustin, MSV C-Champion, oceanographic survey ship USNS Bowditch and M/V Trabajador and support units, Stockman said. The U.S. Navy is receiving security assistance from the Philippine navy and coast guard while it comes up with a final plan to remove the ship.
Thus far, they have been hampered by poor weather and heavy seas, Stockman said. Authorities said that as the ship slides around on the reef each day, damage to the environment increases. The ship was stuck on its bow at first with the rest of the ship off the reef. Now, the entire ship is on the reef, and it has turned 90 degrees.
Songco said the ship is starting to list and members of the Task Force told her it is taking on water. Stockman declined to comment, saying the ship’s condition was being assessed.
Environmental and political concerns will need to be addressed. Songco said she has written the Navy and the U.S. Embassy to notify them of the provisions of the Tubbataha Law that they violated.
Philippine Sen. Loren Legarda, chair of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, announced Wednesday she had filed a resolution seeking an inquiry into the grounding. Protests outside the embassy in Manila intensified this week, with a large picture of the ship burned.
“We have received reports that the personnel of the U.S. Navy ship failed to coordinate closely with the personnel of the protected area even as their ship had already destroyed an estimated 10 meters of corals,” Legarda said in a statement. “A full investigation should be conducted by concerned agencies in order to strengthen existing mechanisms for protecting the World Heritage Site… Those responsible for the damage on the Tubbataha Reef should own up and pay up.”
Philippine authorities have said they intend to fine the Navy; Songco said the amount for damage to the coral is $300 per square meter. The damage area could be anywhere from 200 to 900 square meters but won’t be known until the ship is removed.
The Navy has apologized and pledged to make things right.
“A number of factors will be looked at during the course of the investigation, and a determination as to the cause of the incident will be made at a later date,” Stockman said. “Our focus is on recovering Guardian with minimal impact to the environment or to the ship. Our post-recovery actions can’t be fully determined until the ship is freed from the reef and the full extent of the damage is known.”