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NOAA Researchers Investigate Shipwrecks and 'Mystery Oil Spills': Part 2: Long-sunk secrets rise slowly to the surface

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NOAA Researchers Investigate Shipwrecks and 'Mystery Oil Spills'

Part 1: A new field of study and the 'Montebello Mystery'

December 08, 2011
S/S Montebello

Six miles off the California coast, a Japanese submarine sank the American oil tanker S/S Montebello, shown here at sea, on December 23, 1941 – barely two weeks after Pearl Harbor.

More than a decade ago, Doug Helton of NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration began to study historic shipwrecks and derelict vessels, including those that may be the sources of unexplained “mystery oil spills.” The following interview reveals the environmental implications of his current research, which he is conducting with co-investigators Lisa Symons and John Wagner of NOAA’s Office of National Marine Sanctuaries.

Why is so little known about the potential environmental hazards posed by historic shipwrecks?

Although navigation safety has improved dramatically in recent years, the past century of commerce and warfare has left a legacy of thousands of sunken vessels all along the U.S. coast. Some of these wrecks pose environmental threats because of hazardous cargoes, munitions, or bunker fuel oils left on board. And it is common to see abandoned or derelict vessels sunk or stranded in harbors and waterways.

Unless they posed an immediate pollution threat or impeded navigation, most wrecks were left alone and largely forgotten – unless they began to leak. Recent incidents, however, have heightened concerns about the potential environmental hazards posed by historic shipwrecks and derelict vessels.

In 2002, for example, the decaying wreck of the S/S Jacob Luckenbach, which sank in the Gulf of the Farallones, 17 miles west of San Francisco, in July 1953, was identified as the source of recurring mystery oil spills that had killed thousands of seabirds and other marine life along the central California coast since at least 1992. This is the earliest date for which we have samples, although “mystery spills” have been reported in the region every few years since the mid-1970s.

Doug Helton of NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration

Doug Helton of NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration.

How did you get involved in your current research?

I first worked on this issue in 1999, when I worked with the U.S. Coast Guard (USCG) to remove nine oil-laden fishing vessels from Pago Pago harbor in American Samoa. The vessels had all come ashore on a coral reef during a typhoon, and sat in the harbor for nearly a decade, until NOAA and the USCG took action to remove them.

I realized that someone should prioritize which shipwrecks in U.S. waters pose the greatest potential threat from oil on board (hopefully, before they leak). Where are these wrecks? What condition are they in? Are they intact? Did all of the oil leak out when they first sank, or could they still hold oil, like the Luckenbach did? I discovered that very little was known about the problem.

What is the ‘Montebello Mystery’?

For the past two-and-a-half-years, NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration and Office of National Marine Sanctuaries have assisted the USCG and the California Office of Spill Prevention and Response in evaluating the potential pollution threat from the American oil tanker S/S Montebello. A Japanese submarine sank the tanker off the California coast early on the morning of December 23, 1941 – barely two weeks after Pearl Harbor. At the time, it carried 3 million gallons of crude oil.
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Check back next week to learn more about the S/S Montebello and the connection between shipwrecks and mystery oil spills.

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