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Phl, US agree to cooperate on salvage operation

MANILA, Philippines - The Philippines and the United States agreed to continue working closely in the salvage operation and the investigation into the grounding of the minesweeper USS Guardian in Tubbataha to prevent further damage to the reef.

“The two governments agreed in the meeting to cooperate during investigations of the grounding incident,” the Department of Foreign Affairs and the US embassy said in a joint statement released yesterday.

The Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) had also started its independent inquiry into the grounding of the Guardian.

The PCG formed the Maritime Casualty Investigation Team (MCIT) in accordance with standard procedures and resolutions of the International Maritime Organization (IMO) on serious maritime incidents to establish the circumstances and causes of the grounding and to formulate safety measures to prevent a repeat of the incident.

President Aquino said the government is studying international laws that may be applicable in seeking damages from the US for the incident in Tubbataha.

The USS Guardian ran aground in Tubbataha on Jan. 17. The reef is a UNESCO World Heritage Site located in the Sulu Sea. Based on initial assessment, the incident damaged 4,000 square meters of reefs, officials said.

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American authorities said they were planning to dismantle the 224-foot ship to ensure that the reef would not be further damaged by salvage operations, which was expected to take a few months.

Preparations for the salvage of the ship began after the removal of 15,000 gallons of fuel and other potentially harmful material from the ship. 

The US said it is coordinating with the PCG in the operation after a salvage plan has been submitted to the coast guard for approval and clearance. PCG will share the salvage plan with the Tubbataha Management Office (TMO). 

“Both governments agree that preventing further damage to the reef is a top priority,” the joint statement said.

US officials have expressed regret and vowed to provide appropriate compensation to the Philippines. 

Since the accident, the US embassy said the American government intends to conduct a number of efforts to address the conservation and protection of Tubbataha, including a meeting with local experts to listen to concerns and discuss options for conservation and restoration.

Representatives from USAID, the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Agency, TMO, and other concerned agencies are expected to attend the meeting.

Through USAID’s Coral Triangle Support Partnership (CTSP), P4.1 million ($100,000) will be granted to a Philippine university to support coral restoration research at Tubbataha Reef.

The team will assess damage and remediation options, in coordination with the TMO, Philippine government agencies, non-governmental organizations, and scientific experts from Philippine universities. – With Aurea Calica, Edith Regalado

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