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SASEBO NAVAL BASE, Japan — With the USS Guardian finally removed from a reef off the Philippine coast, the focus has shifted to assessing damage to the World Heritage Site.

Biologists from the Navy and the Tubbataha Management Office are expected to begin a joint assessment Wednesday to determine the extent of damage, park administrator Angelique Songco told Stars and Stripes.

The initial damage assessment will end Friday, Songco said.

Salvage ships contracted by the Navy are expected to remain in the area for a few days to remove large pieces of wood and Fiberglas debris.

“We are so relieved that the ship has been finally removed from the reef,” Songco said. “On the other hand, we know that we are merely moving from one phase to another — from salvage to assessment to imposition of fines to the healing of the reef. However, every step towards closure is a welcome change.”

Philippine Coast Guard officials are scheduled to arrive in Yokosuka on Thursday to discuss the grounding with the Navy’s investigative officer and review the case, 7th Fleet spokesman Cmdr. Ron Steiner said. A Navy investigation into the grounding is ongoing.

“The focus now is the assessment and investigation,” a Philippine Coast Guard official said Tuesday, asking to remain anonymous. “After the assessment we’ll talk about how the U.S. government can compensate for the reef.”

Songco said there is “very little” debris left to be picked up at the reef. Park officials have agreed to collect the smaller pieces.

All parties involved have agreed on the methodology to be used during the assessment. Biologists will calculate the extent of the damage and map primary and secondary damage using global positioning markers, Songco and Philippine Coast Guard officials said.

Songco doesn’t expect much change in the initial estimate that 4,000 square meters of reef were affected because the U.S. Navy took steps to minimize further damage. If that figure holds, the U.S. stands to be fined more than $2 million.

Biological and ecological assessments will be performed from Monday through April 13, Songco said. Coast Guard officials said the reef management office is bringing in experts from the World Wildlife Fund and university researchers to aid them.

No one was injured when the Guardian, an Avenger-class mine countermeasures ship, 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 following two months, the 224-foot ship slid around on Tubbataha Reef, damaging the reef and causing hull breaches. The ship was deemed a complete loss, and a $25 million salvage effort began Feb. 22.

The Guardian was stricken from the naval registry on Feb. 15 and decommissioned at a ceremony in Sasebo on March 6.

The final section of the Guardian’s hull was removed Saturday, and its pieces are headed to Ship Repair Facility Sasebo to see if anything can be recycled, according to Task Force-76 spokesman Lt. Brian Wierzbicki.

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Matthew M. Burke has been reporting from Okinawa for Stars and Stripes since 2014. The Massachusetts native and UMass Amherst alumnus previously covered Sasebo Naval Base and Marine Corps Air Station Iwakuni, Japan, for the newspaper. His work has also appeared in the Boston Globe, Cape Cod Times and other publications.
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