U.S. warship on Philippine reef taking on water

MANILA, Philippines — A U.S. Navy minesweeper that ran aground on a Philippine reef is damaged and taking on water and will have to be lifted off the rocks in an operation that could last another week or two, a Navy official said Thursday.

Before the USS Guardian can be removed from the Tubbataha Reef, about 56,000 liters (15,000 gallons) of fuel will be siphoned off to avoid spills, Rear Adm. Thomas Carney, commander of the Navy’s Logistics Group in the Western Pacific, told reporters.

The ship, which is based in Japan, crashed into the reef before dawn Jan. 17 while on its way to Indonesia after making a rest and refueling stop in Subic Bay, a former American naval base west of Manila.

All of its 79 officers and crew were transferred to two other U.S. vessels the following day for safety reasons as the 68-meter (74-yard) long, 1,300-ton ship was unable to maneuver on its own and buffeted by strong winds and waves.

Carney said the ship is hard aground about 30 meters (yards) from the edge of the reef, a marine sanctuary that is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

“It’s got hull penetration in several places, and there is a significant amount of water inside the ship right now,” he said.

Philippine coast guard chief Rear Adm. Rodolfo Isorena said efforts to remove the fuel have been hampered by the rough waters and another attempt will be made Thursday.

Carney said heavy items aboard the ship will be taken off to lighten it before the vessel is loaded on another ship or barge.

He said the operation could last a week or two.

“I want to express my deepest regret for the circumstances that we are all in right now,” Carney said.

He said an investigation will look into all the factors that may have led to the grounding, including a reported faulty digital chart, sea conditions, weather and the state of the ship’s navigational equipment.

The Philippine government said it wants to fine the Navy for the damage and illegal entry into the marine sanctuary.

Angelique Songco, head of the Protected Areas Management Board, which is in charge of the reef, said the government imposes a fine of about $300 per square meter (yard) of damaged coral plus about the same amount for rehabilitation and other violations.

Carney said that after the ship is removed, the damage to the reef would be assessed and the two governments, which have close military and political ties, will discuss any claims.

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