Navy to Scrap Stuck $277M Vessel
Hopelessly beached on a reef in the Philippines for more than two weeks, the $277 million USS Guardian minesweeper will be cut to pieces in order to free it, the U.S. Navy has decided.
The Avenger-class mine countermeasures ship ran aground Jan. 17 on the environmentally sensitive Tubbataha Reef, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and a Philippines natural park in the Sulu Sea. The ship was then pushed further onto the reef and battered by waves.
None of the 79 crew members aboard the ship were injured, and no fuel has seeped into the reef, the Navy said. However, the United States may face fines from the Philippine government for the accident.
Vessel Already 'a Loss'
The United States is now seeking permission from the Philippine Coast Guard to dismantle the 224-foot, wood-and-fiberglass-hulled ship. The Navy had pumped seawater into the ship's tanks to keep it stable while salvage decisions were being made.
The Navy had hoped after the accident to lift the ship from the reef in one piece during high tide. However, authorities have concluded that that is not possible.
Dismantling the ship will avoid further damage to coral in the area, said Lt. Cmdr. James Stockman, a Navy public affairs officer.
The accident punctured the ship's hull. The initial focus of the investigation is on navigation charts.
"The plan is to dismantle the ship into three pieces and remove the sections by crane," said Stockman. "It has taken a beating by the waves and has taken on water. The vessel was already a loss."
Punctures and Protests
The ship's hull, which is covered in fiberglass, was punctured in the accident, flooding parts of the ship. The Navy contracted a Malaysian tug to transfer the 15,000 gallons of diesel fuel on board.
As part of the salvage effort, the Navy removed hazardous and other materials that might damage the reef, including 671 gallons of lubricating oil and paints and solvents contained in storage lockers.
Lt. Anthony Falvo, a U.S. Navy Pacific Fleet spokesman in Pearl Harbor, HI, told CNN on Wednesday (Jan. 27) that Navy salvage experts are still formulating the details of how they'll cut up the 1,312-ton minesweeper.
Two large cranes are en route to the ship now. The process of tearing it down is expected to take a month.
The ship's grounding on an environmentally sensitive reef has sparked demonstrations in Manila.
The incident has sparked protests at the U.S. Embassy in Manila, where demonstrators splattered anti-riot police with paint.
Potential Fines, Mismarked Charts
As Philippine officials look into several potential fines against the U.S., the Navy is investigating the cause of the accident, including the possibility of inaccurate digital navigation charts.
A preliminary Navy review found that the digital chart the crew was using inaccurately listed the reef's location by eight miles.
The Navy had hoped to retrieve the ship in one piece, but waves pushed the vessel higher onto the reef, puncturing the hull and causing leaks. The U.S. may be fined for the environmental damage.
In addition, the Navy vessel committed at least three legal violations, according to Grace Barber, an administrator with the Tubbataha Reefs Natural Park. The ship operators did not obtain permission to enter the park, did not pay the entry fee, and obstructed work of park rangers, said Barber.
The U.S. could be fined $300 per square meter of damage done to the reef, which is home to more than 350 species of coral and almost 500 types of fish, according to UNESCO. About 1,000 square meters of the reef has been damaged, authorities say.
The ship's grounding is not unprecedented. In August 1971, the supply ship USS Regulus grounded in Hong Kong harbor during Typhoon Rose, Falvo said. It took more than a month to cut that vessel up and remove it, he said. A similar operation was also conducted in 1916, he said.
A diver from the Philippine coast guard measures coral damage Jan. 22 on the Tubbataha Reef.
The Navy has apologized for the incident.
"As a protector of the sea and a sailor myself, I greatly regret any damage this incident has caused the Tubbataha Reef," said Vice Adm. Scott Swift, the U.S. 7th Fleet commander, in a report posted on a Navy website.
"We know the significance of the Tubbataha Reefs Natural Park and its importance as a World Heritage Site. Its protection is vital, and we take seriously our obligations to protect and preserve the maritime environment."