MANILA, Philippines—The American minesweeper USS Guardian, which is stuck on the Tubbataha Reef in Palawan, will be “chopped up” beginning Monday, a Philippine Coast Guard official said Saturday.
PCG Palawan District commander Commodore Enrico Evangelista said the crane ship MT Jascon 25 was due to arrive in the area at 11 p.m. Saturday and that salvaging operations for the USS Guardian would begin on Monday.
“For the past one month, we prepared the USS Guardian for removal and the best scheme to remove (it) is through cutting,” Evangelista said in an interview. “We have already removed the things that can be removed so now [the entire ship] is ready for removal. We will begin cutting (on Monday).”
Evangelista said they had already removed “50-caliber machine guns, small guns and ammunition but no missiles.”
The United States earlier hired the services of the salvaging ships MT Trabajador 1 of Malayan Towage and Salvaging Corp. and the Vos Apollo of a Malaysian company based in Singapore. The US Navy’s USNS Salvor and the PCG’s BRP Romblon are also at the site.
Evangelita said the chopped up parts of the ship would be taken to Vos Apollo and transferred to a barge from Subic Bay.
“This is a warship of the US Navy so they will determine where it will be disposed. I still don’t know what they intend to do with it. The ship may have a design that is a trade secret,” he said.
He added that the Philippine government no longer needed these ship parts for its investigation into the grounding incident.
In Baguio City, Transportation Secretary Joseph Emilio Abaya ruled out the possibility of sending the crew of the USS Guardian to jail for running aground on the Tubbataha Reef.
“It becomes tricky on that respect,” Abaya told reporters when asked if the US Navy servicemen could be imprisoned for destroying the corals at the Tubbataha Reef as provided in RA 10067, the law that established the Tubbataha Reef National Park.
Abaya said it was accepted in the general practice of international laws that “men of war, foreign naval vessels enjoy immunity, especially if it is in the line of duty.”
“So that has been practiced (worldwide), so it would be difficult on that part,” Abaya said on the sidelines of the Philippine Military Academy Homecoming in Fort del Pilar. Abaya is a member of PMA Class ’88.
Nonetheless, Abaya said the US Navy would still be sanctioned for the damage its minesweeper caused to the reef that has been declared a World Heritage Site by the United Nations.
The USS Guardian, which ran aground on January 17, destroyed some 4,000 square meters of corals. But Abaya said the overall damage to the reef had yet to be “assessed” because the ship was still stuck there.
The only way to have an “accurate picture” of the damage is if the ship has been removed, he said.
Abaya expressed hope that the salvaging of USS Guardian would be finished by March, depending on the weather in the area as the personal safety of the crew should also be considered.
Abaya noted that the US government has been “very cooperative and they have immediately apologized… The least they can do is cooperate, become transparent, and share with the people what’s going on.”
Abaya said there was some speculation about how the ship ran aground.
“Some say they probably enjoyed too much of an R&R in Subic. They said there was an error in digital charts. Some say they were doing a different thing there, on their own. This is all speculation so it would be irresponsible on my part to even assume,” Abaya said.