Grounded ‘USS Guardian’ Transfering Hazardous Materials; Fuel Draining Complete

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DRAINING FUEL - Malaysian tugboat, 'Vos Apollo (foreground), prepares for defueling operations near the 'USS Guardian,' which remains stuck on Tubbataha Reef on Friday, Jan. 25, 2013. Diesel fuel has been emptied from the tanks of the US Navy warship. (Courtesy: Aircrewman 3rd Class Geoffrey Trudell/USN)

MANILA, Philippines --- As they wait for the arrival of crane ships from Singapore that will lift USS Guardian from the Tubbataha Reef, United States Navy (USN) personnel will continue to retrieve and transfer weapons and hazardous materials from the stranded minesweeper to another USN ship.

This developed as United States Ambassador to Manila Harry K. Thomas Jr. yesterday conveyed to the Philippine government and its people his profound regret over the grounding of the USS Guardian on Tubbataha Reef.

"This was an unfortunate accident, and I recognize the legitimate concerns over the damage caused to a unique and precious wonder of nature, internationally recognized for its beauty and biological diversity," Ambassador Thomas said in a statement.

Authorities said the heavy lift crane vessels from Singapore are expected to arrive by the first week of February.

Yesterday, a large salvage vessel of the US Navy, the USS Salvor arrived in the area to help in then extraction of the USS Guardian, which remains stuck on Tubbataha Reef for the eighth day.

On Thursday, US Navy Rear Adm. Thomas Carney, who is supervising the salvage operations, said USS Guardian will be lifted off the rocks and transferred to another ship or barge as the ship is now too badly damaged to be towed.

"It's got hull penetration in several places, and there is a significant amount of water inside the ship right now," said Carney, who also said that the distressed ship is hard aground about 30 meters from the edge of the reef.

Partial de-fuelling of the ship was also conducted Thursday.

Thomas said the US government and its military are "totally committed to working jointly with our Philippine counterparts to remove the ship as expeditiously as possible, making every possible effort to avoid or minimize further damage."

"We will work collaboratively with the Philippines to assess the damage and to take steps to address the environmental issues that have arisen from this incident," the top US diplomat in the Philippines declared.

Ambassador Thomas also expressed his gratitude to the Philippine Coast Guard and Philippine Navy "for their close cooperation with us."

"We will continue our combined efforts to resolve this matter," he stated. "As the investigation of this matter proceeds, we hope to continue our close coordination with the Philippine government to understand precisely what happened so we can ensure there will be no recurrence."

On Thursday, January 17, the USS Guardian ran aground on the Tubbataha Reef in the Sulu Sea, about 80 miles east-southeast of Palawan during a normal transit.

The ship had just completed a port call in Subic Bay, Zambales, and was en route to its next port of call when the grounding occurred.

No one was injured in the incident, and there have been no reports of leaking fuel or oil.

The extent of damage to the ship and the cause of the grounding are currently under investigation.

Meanwhile, Task Force Unit Guardian spokesman Lt. Cmdr. James Stockman reported that they are removing the Guardian's fuel as weather conditions allow, and as of Thursday, had removed approximately 70 percent of onboard fuel.

Stockman said there are still no traces of an oil slick in the area.

Additionally, he said they have deployed a marine biologist/coral reef expert to the site to advise the US Navy of environmental considerations during the salvage and recovery operation.

The marine biologist/coral reef expert, who is embarked on USS Mustin, has begun a survey in view of the grounding site, as well as of adjacent undisturbed reef structure to begin the assessment of damages and evaluate the health of the surrounding reef, but the full extent of the damage will not be able to be determined until we remove the ship.

"We are doing everything possible to minimize environmental damage while we recover the ship," said Stockman in a statement sent through email. "When the Guardian is safely recovered, the US government will continue to work with the Philippine government to assess the extent of the damage to the reef and the surrounding marine environment caused by the grounding."

He added that the guided missile destroyer USS Mustin (DDG 89), USNS Bowditch, USNS Salvor, Malaysian tug Vos Apollo and M/V Trabajador are all on station, with heavy-lift vessels SMIT Borneo and SMIT Cyclone en route.

Stockman added that they are also receiving security assistance from the Philippine Coast Guard and Navy vessels on station. The MSV C-Champion initially responded and has departed, he said.

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