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Ships that sank in the past 80 years usually contained large amounts of oil for propulsion or as cargo. Determining the risks can help reduce the number of significant pollution incidents.


Clean Ocean Waters

RUST and Ship Wrecks

Preventing Pollution In Coastal Waters

by Richard O. Aichele

The 6,778 gt tanker Coimbra was torpedoed and sank twenty miles off Long Island, New York in 1942. The wreck lying in 180 feet of water on its side is broken into three pieces. Most of the lubricating oil cargo onboard originally was believed released or burned when she was torpedoed but oil trapped in the wreck still has slowly and steadily leaked to the surface since the sinking requiring several beach remediation projects.

It is but one of the still unknown number of sunken ships along the U.S. coastlines. The ships that went down more than 80 years ago during World War II have been steadily deteriorating and possibly posing significant future potential pollution threats. Finding and evaluating those potential environmental threats is the goal of the RUST, the Resources and Under Sea Threats program, originally established in 2003 by NOAA’s Office of National Marine Sanctuaries and Office of Response and Restoration as the first comprehensive effort to identify the thousands of sunken vessels and their cargoes in U.S. coastal and inland waters.


Marine growth on the Montbello's propeller.


Working from marine casualty data collected since 2004 by NOAA from various federal, state and private sources, a data base structure that was still in the development stage by 2008 had located 300,000 records which identified over 7,000 sunken ships mainly in U.S. coastal waters of which 1,122 are vessels over 100 tons that still contain an estimated 1.3 billion gallons of fuel oil. The goal is to develop RUST “so the agency could look at the potential threat more proactively instead of responding reactively,” explained Michael Overfield, MA, RPA marine archaeologist with the NOAA National Marine Sanctuary Program.


A History of Several Environmental Incidents

One of the West Coast's more serious incidents was oil coming ashore south of San Francisco, California that led to major wildlife disasters between 1997 and 2002 in the Gulf of Farrallones National Maritime Sanctuary administered by NOAA. The oil killed 51,000 sea birds, 8 sea otters and fouled 40,000 square miles of shore tidal flats. The successful search for the oil source using divers and oil-fingerprinting finally established it came from the 468-foot freighter S.S. Jacob Luckenbach that sank in 1953 after a collision 17 miles off San Francisco. When the ship sank in 175-foot deep water it carried 458,000 gallons of bunker oil down with it.

As the Luckenbach wreck gradually deteriorated, oil discharges were released. A report by the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary concluded a large 2001 - 2002 discharge was likely caused “when it was rocked on the sea floor by a major swell” due to strong winter storms. “The winter storms would tip the Luckenbach in a way that she would burp up some oil then we would not hear from her again for nine months,” noted Overfield.

Titan Maritime was awarded the contract in 2002 and teamed with Crowley Maritime, Global Diving and Salvage and PCCI to assess the Luckenbach and remove recoverable oil on board. Removing oil from the wreck was a complex issue for the salvors and the projects cost originally estimated to cost $8 million eventually cost almost $22 million due in part to storm delays. When completed, 85,000 gallons of heavy Bunker C oil had been recovered.

The Luckenbach’s pollution and resulting oil removal salvage operation raised important concerns. “NOAA’s Office of Marine Sanctuaries was concerned with other threats immediately within the sanctuaries and up to 125 miles outside. How many more ships like the Luckenbach were out there and how could we best get a handle on it?” were the questions said Overfield.

Another oil pollution incident occurrence in 2004 was discovered when oil covered sea birds were found around Seacliff, California. Oil fingerprinting determined all were all exposed to the same oil source. The investigation ruled out passing ships discharging oily bilge water and sunken ships offshore. In 2005, attention turned to the S.S. Palo Alto, a World War I era ship built of cement instead of steel as an oil tanker, which had been beached at Seacliff in 1930 as a tourist attraction and later used as a breakwater and part of the fishing pier. Oil was found in steel tanks within the ship that after almost 80 years had begun to leak.

In 2006, Titan was awarded the contract to eliminate the pollution source. According to a Titan report, “Divers surveyed and located the discharge point as being the port forward bunker tank. Over 100 seabird and marine wildlife, oil-covered carcasses were removed. Sludgy oil was pumped from the tank into reservoirs and, finally, the oily sediment that filled over half the tank was pumped into filter and vac boxes. All recoveries were uneventfully transported for waste disposal.”


The RUST Program – A Tool For On-Going Proactive Salvage

The goals of NOAA's RUST program is “to take stock of these ships, understand the environment they are in, what’s the potential of impact from a catastrophic release of their oil to the shoreline and how to address it best by planning for it rather than just reacting,” said Overfield.


A fishing net caught on the Montbello's superstructure.


Using historical data, RUST is identifying vessels, their cargoes, how they were lost, their reported location at the time of sinking and evaluating how much oil may still be on board based on the events of the sinking. Many wrecks with the potential to cause significant pollution went down during World War II in close-in coastal waters. One ship in the data base is the 440-foot tanker Montebello that was torpedoed and sunk off Cambria, California in December 1941 with a 3,089,982 gallon cargo of heavy oil. The wreck is in 850-feet of water close to the southern edge of the Monteray Bay National Marine Sanctuary. Explorations between 1996 and 2003 with a submersible found the wreck’s hull to be upright and intact except where the bow separated when the torpedo hit but there was no evidence of oil leakage so the entire cargo may still be within the wreck’s hull steel tanks.


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The S.S. Dixie Arrow was an oil tanker carrying 86,000 barrels of oil on a regular voyage between Texas and a refinery in New Jersey during World War 2.


wrap text around imageNear Cape Hatteras, North Carolina in March 1942, the S.S. Dixie Arrow was torpedoed and immediately caught fire. The explosions broke the back of the ship breaking in two. The burning oil in the ship spilled into the surrounding sea and burned for over two hours before the ship sank. The underwater photo 70 years later shows the ship's bow upright on the ocean floor at a depth of 90 feet. In this incident there was no oil spill pollution because the cargo was almost all consumed by the intense fire.


Future vessel assessments as part of RUST can help determine the condition and stability of wrecks to aid salvors before undersea work begins to avoid any accidental release of the oil due to ship structural failures Overfield explained. Long years under water results in corrosion of rivets or weld area deterioration due to dissimilar metals and when combined with hull hogging as vessel structure weakens taking the form of the undersea surface. Those changes can eventually open seams of tanks allowing oil to escape.

“Steel does deteriorate as time goes on,” noted John A. Witte Jr., with the the American Salvage Association. “What we at the ASA don’t want to see happen with any of sunken vessels that NOAA has identified as part of their RUST program is an oil discharge due to failure of the hull resulting in significant pollution. It is cheaper to try to remediate it in place than wait for it to break open and leak oils. While it’s easier to clean it up once oil is outside the ship it is also a lot more expensive. The U.S. Coast Guard is involved in evaluation of this program because it’s cheaper in the long run if appropriate targets are identified.” He suggested that “a group effort between the government and private business” could be part of the total solution.

“Using the base criteria, NOAA will decide which ships may still have the largest quantity of fuel oil still on board that would be the largest environmental threat and potentially the largest shoreline socio-economic impacts. Then we would go out and do an assessment of those leaking now. We have recently been talking with the Coast Guard about setting up a pilot project to assess some of the vessels,” Overfield explained.

While RUST was undertaken by NOAA’s Office of National Marine Sanctuary as part of its resource protection program for the sanctuaries, the detailed information entered into the RUST data base benefited all government entities along U.S. coastal and inland waters plus becoming an important planning tool for salvors. The American Salvage Association has noted its commitment "to assisting Federal legislators in the building of a strong regulatory framework for casualty response. Salvage operations will be made more efficient and effective through pre-planning."


The original RUST program focused on "potential threats within the boundaries of and up to 50 nautical miles outside of national marine sanctuaries. This internal database was established to develop an initial inventory of both historically significant resources that could be at risk from an oil spill, as well as an inventory of sites that could pose a threat to marine and coastal resources...The project soon grew beyond the scope of the National Marine Sanctuary System and encompassed threats and resources in all U.S. waters.


NOAA RUST map of all sunken ship wreck sites in coastal waters.

Of the 30,000 sites identified by RUST, there are over 20,000 wrecks in U.S. waters and at least 10,000 or so other sites that include planes, munitions dumpsites, hazardous materials dumpsites, abandoned wellheads, pipelines, and other miscellany dumped “out of sight and out of mind. ... RUST was useful for specific limited queries, typically associated with mystery spills, and for contingency planning near and within National Marine Sanctuary System sites. However, it was not an effective risk assessment tool in its original form, in that it did not address the larger question of how to characterize potential pollution threats on a national level in a manner that could be incorporated into spill response planning," according to NOAA.


NOAA map of high priority sunken ship sites in coastal waters.

The process was refined in 2013 with the Risk Assessment for Potentially Polluting Wrecks in U.S. waters to determine which ship wrecks in U.S. waters could have the greatest risk of causing a possible pollution discharge. The work included a new wreck assessment called the Remediation of Underwater Legacy Environmental Threats or RULET that narrowed the target list down to 87 wrecks. The RULET study for each wreck "included historical information, an archaeological assessment, probabilistic spill trajectories for both the Worst Case Discharge (all of the oil potentially onboard both as fuel and cargo), and Most Probable Discharge (10% of the worst case volume, as a rough estimate of the loss of one tank or a chronic leak over time), and an assessment and scoring of impacts to the ecological and socio-economic resources at risk." NOAA's RULET determined that "of the 87 wrecks, 6 vessels are high priority for a Most Probable (10%) discharge, and 36 are high priority for a Worst Case Discharge of the 20,000 wrecks in US waters."

For the U.S. Coast Guard, in its role as the Federal On Scene Coordinator for the coastal and marine waters, the RUST AND RULET data can provide critical accurate data when incidents occur.


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