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Work to dismantle Navy ship stuck on Philippine reef might begin soon

The USS Guardian sits in the Sulu Sea in the Philippines, stuck on the Tubbataha Reef, where it has been since Jan. 17, 2012. A Malaysian tug arrives Jan. 27 to remove hazardous material from the U.S. Navy ship.

SASEBO NAVAL BASE, Japan — Work to cut up and remove the USS Guardian from a protected reef where it ran aground more than a month ago is expected to begin Friday and continue until at least March 23 under a new timeline released by the U.S. Navy and Philippine Coast Guard.

Early Navy estimates suggested salvage operations could run well into April and appeared to be pushed back even further last week after a contracted floating crane to be used during the work was deemed inadequate. A larger and more capable crane was dispatched and arrived on site Saturday.

Operations also were delayed by a tropical depression that officials hope will clear up in time to allow work to begin Friday.

“The salvage plan will continue to be updated as the condition of the hull changes, as discoveries of actual ship conditions are made during the dismantling, and depending upon weather conditions and sea states,” Navy spokesman Lt. Frederick Martin told Stars and Stripes via email. “Again, the 23rd is not a specific goal, target, or announced end of operations, but instead part of the planning process.”

No one was injured when the Sasebo-based Guardian ran aground around 2:25 a.m. on Jan. 17 while transiting the Sulu Sea. The 79 crewmembers were removed the next day as a safety precaution.

Over the past month, the 224-foot mine detection and neutralization ship has slid around on the Tubbataha Reef — a World Heritage Site — damaging the reef and causing hull breaches.

The grounding sparked protests outside the U.S. Embassy, and Philippine officials have called for the U.S. Navy and government to pay stiff fines. Navy officials have said the ship is a complete loss and removing it will cost nearly $25 million.

Navy officials denied a request by Stars and Stripes for a copy of the salvage plan this week, citing the “contracting process,” but did release details. Topside equipment will be removed from the ship first, followed by masts, funnel and other accessible equipment and pieces of the ship, Martin said. The focus will then turn to the ship’s superstructure, or the part of the ship above the main deck. Sections will be cut free and lifted with the crane.

“Throughout the process, protection of the environment and mitigation of environmental risk will be a significant consideration, alongside safety of personnel,” Martin said.

Next to go will be the heavy machinery and equipment inside the ship, Martin said. Once the hull is empty, it will be cut into three sections. The bow and stern will be removed intact, but the middle section will be removed in pieces as the structure lacks the strength to lift it intact.

The fuel and hazardous materials have already been removed.

“The ship will be disassembled using a combination of hydraulic and pneumatic saws, grinders, cutters and other equipment,” Martin said. “As equipment and sections of the ship are removed, they will be transferred to a barge or deck of the crane for further work.”

Once the ship is removed, the process to repair the reef — and relations with the Philippine government and people — will truly begin. Ecologists believe the response will be dictated by the weather and conditions on Tubbataha.

“In a situation such as the Guardian, it may simply be impossible to do restoration,” Walter Jaap, a coral reef ecologist specializing in groundings, wrote in an email to Stars and Stripes, adding that little can be done to speed the reef’s recovery.

“[Tubbataha] appears to be in a strong-wave surge zone; this is a very difficult place to work, risky for being washed into the rocks… In a case such as this with catastrophic impacts it would be decades or more for resources to recover to pre-incident status,” said Jaap, who worked for the state of Florida for 35 years, and is now a consultant affiliated with the University of South Florida. Jaap was responsible for a report on damage to Runway Reef off Honolulu after the USS Port Royal ran aground in 2009.

Jaap said one option would involve removing loose rubble and debris — including the ship jetsam — and rebuilding the lost reef structure with limestone boulders and hydraulic cement while reattaching the coral that was broken off with hydraulic cement. Other options could include anything from installing beacons that show up on a ship’s radar to a 10-year monitoring project and coral nursery.

Jaap said recovering the debris could pose a problem for salvage workers.

The Guardian’s hull has been torn up on the reef and much of its fiberglass coating has been deposited in the sea, revealing the wood underneath.

“Rubble is typically removed by hand or with mechanical equipment and transported off site and disposed of,” Jaap said. “In Port Royal [incident] only a minimal amount of rubble was removed. The contractor found out that the seas were too difficult to work in. In other cases, we have removed virtually all of the rubble.”

burkem@pstripes.osd.mil

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