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Getting Shipwrecked at the 2011 International Oil Spill Conference

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In getting ready to lead a discussion on shipwrecks and marine pollution at the 2011 International Oil Spill Conference, I took a look at some past cases in Oregon, where the conference is taking place. (You can browse through historical incidents at http://www.incidentnews.gov/.)

The Oregon coast and Columbia River have claimed many ships over the years. One of the most memorable in recent years was the grounding of the 640-foot freighter New Carissa off Coos Bay, Ore., in 1999.

The New Carissa is a long sea story, involving a dark and stormy night, a heroic rescue of the crew, explosives, burning fuel, the ship breaking in two, failed salvage attempts, and a U.S. Navy submarine having to fire a torpedo to scuttle the bow section of the ship. I was there when the ship was intentionally blown-up and burned. It was startling to see the smoldering wreckage in the surf.

The grounded ship New Carissa on fire off the coast of Oregon in 1999.

A grounded New Carissa on fire near Coos Bay, Ore., Feb. 12, 1999. The ship's remaining fuel was intentionally ignited to help prevent nearly 400,000 gallons of oil from reaching the shoreline. Credit: U.S. Coast Guard

The stern section of the New Carissa remained stranded on the Oregon shore for over nine years until it was cut apart and removed from the beach in 2008.

NOAA scientists collecting water samples near the site of the grounded New Carissa in 1999.

NOAA scientists collecting water samples near the site of the grounded New Carissa in 1999. Credit: NOAA

A more recent pollution concern for that region comes from the SS Davy Crockett, a World War II Liberty ship built in 1942. This 431-foot ship was converted to a barge and then abandoned and beached along the Washington shore of the Columbia River. Earlier this year the ship began to leak oil, and the U.S. Coast Guard is conducting a cleanup.

The Davy Crockett being dismantled in 2011.

The Davy Crockett being dismantled in 2011. The wreck is surrounded by a steel cofferdam to keep oil from spilling into the river. Credit: U.S. Coast Guard

Unfortunately there are a lot of abandoned and derelict (neglected) vessels in our coastal waters, and many contain oil and hazardous materials. At the conference this week I am chairing a discussion on these kinds of sunken wrecks. NOAA’s interests in shipwrecks come from its roles as a scientific adviser to the U.S. Coast Guard, as a manager of living marine and cultural resources, and as the nation’s chart-maker to ensure that wrecks are properly marked on maps for safe navigation.

I have been working on shipwreck issues since I got involved with a project in American Samoa. In the early 1990s, a typhoon hit the island and grounded nine fishing vessels. The owners abandoned them on the reef. NOAA worked with the Coast Guard to remove the wrecks and restore the coral reef.

NOAA staff transplanting corals away from the wreck in American Samoa prior to bringing in salvage equipment in 2000.

Here we are transplanting corals away from the wreck in American Samoa prior to bringing in salvage equipment in 2000. Credit: NOAA

Since then, I have been engaged in a number of shipwreck projects. Currently, I am working with NOAA’s Office of National Marine Sanctuaries to figure out which of the approximately 30,000 ships wrecked in US waters might pose pollution threats. Most date back to World War I or earlier and did not carry oil as fuel or cargo.

Some of the more recent wrecks, however, are known to be substantially intact and based on accident investigation reports and cargo records, have the potential to contain oil. This is an issue around the world, and one of the presentations during my conference session will be from an Italian researcher looking at wrecks in the Mediterranean Sea. I’m looking forward to hearing how other countries are addressing the same issue.

Author: doughelton

Doug Helton is the Incident Operations Coordinator for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Emergency Response Division. The Division provides scientific and technical support to the Coast Guard during oil and chemical spill responses. The Division is based in Seattle, WA, but manages NOAA response efforts nationally.

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