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MANILA, Philippines – The USS Guardian that ran aground on Tubbataha Reef last week may soon be removed from the marine sanctuary and the United States may pay the fines for damaging 1,000 square meters of the world heritage site, but the impact of the mishap will last for decades, even centuries.
It will take a year for one millimeter of the mostly hard corals damaged in Tubbataha’s south atoll to grow back and about 250 years for a meter of the corals to mature, Roel C. Alargon, a researcher for the Tubbataha Management Office, told InterAksyon.com in a recent phone interview.
The reefs are priceless, according to Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources assistant director Benjamin Tabios
“You can’t put a price tag on it. Yes, you would know the damage by size and shape. But you can’t estimate it in terms of peso. The reefs in there are invaluable,” Tabios recently told reporters.
Authorities have not yet fully examined the extent of the damage done on the habitat, which has 360 species of corals or about half of all coral reefs in the world. Marine scientists may have to wait for the U.S, Navy minesweeper to be removed from the reefs before they could closely check on the wounded corals.
The U.S. Navy may have to pay a fine of P12,000 per square meter for USS Guardian’s unauthorized entry in the no-navigation marine park as stipulated in sections 19 and 26 of the Tubbataha Reefs National Park Act of 2009.
On Friday, salvage teams deployed by the US Navy had successfully removed all the diesel fuel from USS Guardian.
A statement from the US Navy 7th Fleet said the recovered 15,000 gallons of diesel fuel were transferred to the Malaysian tug M/T Vos Apollo, a salvage ton contracted by the US Navy.
"To prevent potential environmental damage, a U.S. Navy-led salvage team on Jan. 25 completed removing all diesel fuel from the tanks of the mine countermeasures ship USS Guardian, which ran aground on the Tubbataha Reef one week earlier,” the statement said.
De-fuelling operations started Thursday and its completion means the start of the retrieval of the stricken ship.
Rear Adm. Thomas Carney, the on-scene commander of the salvage operation, said, “One of our priorities was to get the fuel out of the ship in order to minimize environmental damage."
It wasn’t the first time that a mishap involving a ship happened in Tubbataha. In 2005, while on a climate change expedition, Greenpeace’s Rainbow Warrior also ran aground at the marine park, damaging about 96 square meters of the site. Authorities had the environmental group pay a fine of P384,000 or P4,000 per square meter. –with reports from Pots de Leon and Philippine News Agency