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Damage From US Navy Ship to Pristine Reef Far Worse Than Estimated

UNESCO World Heritage site still under threat as USS Guardian remains stuck in reef

- Andrea Germanos, staff writer

With attempts to salvage a US Navy minesweeper stranded in a pristine coral reef in the Philippines not yet underway, reports indicate that the damage the grounding caused to the marine sanctuary is far worse than initially estimated.

The U.S. Navy-contracted Malaysian tug Vos Apollo removes petroleum-based products and human wastewater from the mine countermeasure ship USS Guardian (MCM 5), which ran aground on the Tubbataha Reef in the Sulu Sea on Jan. 17. (U.S. Navy photo/Released) The USS Guardian ran aground in the Tubbataha Reef Marine Park, a UNESCO World Heritage site, on Jan. 17 after ignoring warnings from park rangers, and has remained there battling waves and sparking environmental concerns since.

On Saturday, marine park manager Angelique Songco said that at least 4,000 square meters of coral reefs were damaged, four times worse than initial estimates.

On Wednesday, the U.S. Navy said the ship would be salvaged by dismantling it into pieces, effectively making the reef an industrial 'operating table,' after finding damage to the Guardian too extensive to be salvaged by lifting the whole ship by crane and taking it away.

"Guardian is badly damaged and with the deteriorating integrity of the ship, the weight involved, and where it is grounded on the reef, dismantling in sections is the only supportable option," a U.S. Pacific Fleet spokesman, Capt. Darryn James, said in a statement.

Environmental group Kalikasan People’s Network for the Environment (KPNE) warned that the Navy's plan to chop up the Guardian could pose serious risks.

"We must prioritize the health and integrity of the Tubbataha Reef and know first the amount and extent of possible impacts of the different salvaging operations before we decide. We should take caution because the US Navy is apparently more concerned with the USS Guardian than with protecting the national marine park," KPNE National Coordinator Clemente Bautista, Jr. said in a statement.

"The Philippine government, not the US Navy, should decide on how we should protect our marine resources in relation to the removal of the USS Guardian in the Tubbataha Reef," he added.

The Philippine Star reports that the dismantling operation may start on Wednesday.