NOAA's Response and Restoration Blog

An inside look at the science of cleaning up and fixing the mess of marine pollution


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Mysterious Oil Spill Traced to Vessel Sunk in 1942 Torpedo Attack

Aerial photo of an oil sheen on the ocean.

U.S. Coast Guard overflight photo, taken on July 17, 2014. (USCG)

A few weeks ago a North Carolina fisherman had a sinking feeling as he saw “black globs” rising to the ocean surface about 48 miles offshore of Cape Lookout. From his boat, he also could see the tell-tale signs of rainbow sheen and a dark black sheen catching light on the water surface—oil. But looking around at the picturesque barrier islands to the west and Atlantic’s open waters to the east, he couldn’t figure out where it was coming from. What was the source of this mysterious oil?

Describing what he saw, the fisherman filed a pollution report with the U.S. Coast Guard. On July 17, 2014, a U.S. Coast Guard C-130 aircraft flew over the site and confirmed the presence of a sheen of oil in the same vicinity. Based on the location and persistence of the sheens, the responders suspected the oil possibly could be leaking from the sunken wreck of the steamship W.E. Hutton, 140 feet below the water surface. Shortly after, archeologists confirmed that to be the case.

Balck and white photo of a ship in 1942.

A 1942 photo of the W.E. Hutton. (USCG)

At the Bottom of the Graveyard of the Atlantic

This area off of North Carolina’s Outer Banks is known as the Graveyard of the Atlantic. The combination of harsh storms, piracy, and warfare have left these waters littered with shipwrecks, and because of the conditions that led to their demise, many of them are broken in pieces. In the midst of World War II, on March 18, 1942, the W.E. Hutton was one of three U.S. vessels in the area torpedoed by German U-boats. Tragically, 13 of the 23 crewmembers aboard the ship were killed. The Hutton’s survivors were rescued by the Port Halifax, a British ship.

When the steam-powered tanker was hit by German torpedoes, the Hutton was en route from Smiths Bluff, Texas, to Marcus Hook, Pennsylvania, with a cargo of 65,000 barrels of #2 heating oil. An initial torpedo hit the starboard bow, and the second hit to the port side came 10 minutes later. The ship sank an hour after the first hit, eventually settling onto the seafloor. Today, it is reportedly upside down, with the port side buried in sand but with the starboard edge and some of its railing visible.

The wreck of the W.E. Hutton also is located in the NOAA Remediation to Undersea Legacy Environmental Threats (RULET) Database. Evaluated in the 2013 NOAA report “Risk Assessment for Potentially Polluting Wrecks in U.S. Waters,” this wreck was considered a low potential for a major oil spill because dive surveys “show all tanks open to the sea and no longer capable of retaining oil.”  However, as the fisherman could observe from the waters above, some oil clearly remains trapped in the wreckage.

This shipwreck was described by wreck diver and historian Gary Gentile as having “enough large cracks to permit easy entry into the vast interior.” Another wreck diver and historian, Roderick Farb, noted that the largest point of entry into the hull is “about 150 feet from the stern,” through a “huge crack in the hull full of rubble, iron girders, twisted hull plates and other wreckage.”  This wreck is the closest one to the spot where the fisherman first saw the leaking oil, and given the Hutton’s inverted position and such cracks, we now realize the possibility that the inverted hull has been trapping some of the 65,000 barrels of its oil cargo as well as its own fuel.

An image of the wreck of the W.E. Hutton laying on the ocean floor.

A multibeam scan of the wreck of the W.E. Hutton taken in 2010. (NOAA)

Solving the Problems with Sunken Shipwrecks 

On July 21, 2014, a commercial dive company contracted by the U. S. Coast Guard sent down multiple dive teams to the Hutton’s wreck to assess the scope and quantity of the leaking oil. The contractor developed and implemented a containment and mitigation plan, which stopped the flow of oil from a finger-sized hole in the rusted hull. It is not known how much oil escaped into the ocean or how long it had been leaking before the passing fisherman noticed it in the first place.

NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration, led by Scientific Support Coordinator Frank Csulak, provided the U.S. Coast Guard access to historical data about shipwrecks off of North Carolina, survey information, including underwater and archival research, and the animals, plants, and habitats at risk from the leaking oil. Our office frequently provides scientific support in this way when a maritime problem occurs due to sunken wrecks. They may pose a significant threat to the environment, human health, and navigational safety (as an obstruction to navigation). Or, as in this case, shipwrecks can threaten to discharge oil or hazardous substances into the marine environment.

Last May, our office released an overall report describing this work and our recommendations, along with 87 individual wreck assessments. The individual risk assessments highlight not only concerns about potential ecological and socio-economic impacts, but they also characterize most of the vessels as being historically significant. In addition, many of them are grave sites, both civilian and military. The national report, including the 87 risk assessments, is available at “Potentially Polluting Wrecks in U.S. Waters.” Several of those higher-risk wrecks also lie in the Graveyard of the Atlantic, but as we discovered, it is difficult to predict where and when a rusted wreck might release its oily secrets to the world.

OR&R’s Doug Helton and Frank Csulak contributed to this post.

 


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A Tale of Two Shipwrecks: When History Threatens to Pollute

Last year I wrote about NOAA’s work in identifying potentially polluting shipwrecks in U.S. waters.

Several men work to pump oil onto a barge on the ocean.

During November 2013, the Canadian Coast Guard (Western Region) worked with Mammoet Salvage to remove the oil remaining on board the wreck of the Brigadier General M.G. Zalinski. The Zalinski sank off the North Coast of British Columbia, Canada, and its wreck remains upside down on top of an underwater cliff. (Daniel Porter, Mammoet Salvage)

One of the wrecks that we’ve been watching with interest has been the wreck of the Brigadier General M. G. Zalinski, a World War II U.S. Army transport ship that ran aground and sank in 1946 near Prince Rupert, Canada.  For the past decade the vessel has been the source of chronic oil spills in British Columbia’s Inside Passage, and patches to the hull were only a temporary solution.

Response operations were just completed in late December 2013, and the Canadian government reported that two-month-long operations safely extracted approximately 44,000 liters (about 12,000 gallons) of heavy Bunker C oil and 319,000 liters (84,000 gallons) of oily water from the wreck.  More information on the project is on Canada’s Department of Fisheries and Oceans website.

Every shipwreck has its own story to tell. One of the interesting bits of trivia about the Zalinski is that the crew of the sinking ship back in 1946 was rescued by the Steam Ship Catala. The Zalinski, lying in Canadian waters, is not in our database of potentially polluting shipwrecks, but the S.S. Catala is, or should I say, was.

The Catala met its end in 1965 when the ship grounded during a storm and was abandoned on a beach on the outer coast of Washington state.  Over time the vessel was buried in sand, but 40 years later, winds and tides had changed the face of the beach, re-exposing the Catala’s rusted-out, oil-laden hull.  In 2007, the State of Washington led a multi-agency effort to remove not only the 34,500 gallons of oil still on board but also the ship’s wreckage and the potential for a major oil spill near a number of state parks and national wildlife refuges on the coast.

Learn more about how NOAA worked with the U.S. Coast Guard and Regional Response Teams to prioritize potential threats to coastal resources from the nation’s legacy of sunken ships.


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Why You Should Thank a Hydrographer

NOAA's Office of Coast Survey created this digital terrain model of the wreck of the freighter Fernstream, a 416-foot motor cargo vessel that sank near San Francisco, Calif., in 1952. The different colors indicate water depth and helps inform us on the structural integrity of the wreck, which may still have stores of oil aboard. (NOAA)

NOAA’s Office of Coast Survey created this digital terrain model of the wreck of the freighter Fernstream, a 416-foot motor cargo vessel that sank near San Francisco, Calif., in 1952. The different colors indicate water depth and helps inform us on the structural integrity of the wreck, which may still have stores of oil aboard. (NOAA)

World Hydrography Day is celebrated each year on June 21. But before we start thanking hydrographers, we first should explain: What is a hydrographer?

Basically, a hydrographer measures and documents the shape and features of the ocean floor and coasts. These scientists then create charts showing the ocean’s varying depths and the location of underwater obstructions, such as rocky outcroppings or shipwrecks. As our fellow NOAA colleagues at the Office of Coast Survey (an office full of hydrographers) further elaborate, “hydrographic surveying ‘looks’ into the ocean to see what the sea floor looks like,” with most of the work “primarily concerned with water depth.”

Mariners, unlike drivers on a dangerous road, can’t see the whole picture of the path their ships are taking. Is this harbor deep enough for a large ship to enter safely? Where should they avoid sensitive coral reefs? They rely on NOAA’s nautical charts to show them what is on the sea floor and where there are objects or areas to avoid.

Sometimes, however, ships do run afoul with underwater features—which, for example, could be coral reefs, pipelines, or damaged oil service platforms—leading to oil spills or crushed coral reef habitats. That brings our office into the picture to help minimize the environmental damage and then work to restore it.

This is why we at the Office of Response and Restoration are grateful for the hydrographers who are diligently creating and updating the charts that keep our ocean and its travelers safe. Beyond that, here are a few more reasons why we (and hopefully you) would want to thank a hydrographer.

Modeling Leaking Shipwrecks

Remote sensing data from hydrographic surveys are, in many instances, the first picture we have of a shipwreck and give us some sense of what state the ship is in before NOAA sends down divers or remotely operated vehicles (ROV). We know that even ships broken into two or three sections can still hold a significant amount of oil (from fuel or cargo). Recently, we worked with NOAA’s Office of National Marine Sanctuaries to evaluate the thousands of shipwrecks in U.S. waters for those with the potential to leak oil still onboard. In a report to the U.S. Coast Guard, we highlighted 17 wrecks, in particular, that should be assessed further and possibly have any remaining oil removed.

Coast Survey recently finished surveying one of these wrecks, the freighter Fernstream [PDF], which sank after colliding with another ship near San Francisco Bay in 1952. One of their physical science technicians then created a vibrant three-dimensional model of the wreck, with the colors representing different water depths detected by multibeam sonar. From this kind of information, maritime archaeologists can interpret how the wrecked ship might be oriented on the sea floor and estimate where oil tanks could be located.

Mapping Environmental Responses

Bathymetry, or water depth measurement, data is one of the primary data sets we use as a base layer in ERMA®, our online mapping tool for environmental planning and response. We often display high resolution bathymetry data in ERMA to better understand areas of interest, such as the site of a ship spilling oil. ERMA can readily pull in bathymetry data feeds from NOAA and university partners to help our scientist refine models of the water column and classify aquatic habitat. High resolution bathymetry data was particularly useful for visualizing the area surrounding the damaged wellhead for the Deepwater Horizon wreckage and has aided in assessing risk to nearshore habitats on the Gulf Coast.

In this view of the online mapping tool, ERMA Deepwater Gulf Response, the multi-colored bathymetry, or water depth measurement, data are shown for estuaries off the coast of Louisiana and Alabama. This information aided in assessing risk to nearshore habitats on the Gulf Coast after the 2010 Deepwater Horizon/BP oil spill. (NOAA)

In this view of the online mapping tool, ERMA Deepwater Gulf Response, the multi-colored bathymetry, or water depth measurement, data are shown for estuaries off the coast of Louisiana and Alabama. This information aided in assessing risk to nearshore habitats on the Gulf Coast after the 2010 Deepwater Horizon/BP oil spill. (NOAA)

During the response to an oil spill or ship grounding, we sometimes work with hydrographers who may be able to do new underwater surveys of the affected area. In addition, with access to huge databases of bathymetry data, they can offer much more detailed information than what is on the average nautical chart, helping us guide response decisions, such as where response vessels can be anchored safely. For example, when Shell’s Arctic drilling rig Kulluk ran aground off Kodiak Island, Alaska, on Dec. 31, 2012, a Coast Survey specialist, using detailed nautical charts and data, helped us identify nearby Kiliuda Bay as a suitable safe harbor to relocate the rig.

Detecting Submerged Hurricane Debris

After a hurricane, lots of debris from on land, including oil drums, shipping containers, and chemical tanks, can get swept into the ocean. This has been a notable issue following Hurricane Sandy in the fall of 2012. Currently, Coast Survey is collecting hydrographic data to update their charts from North Carolina to Connecticut, the states affected by Hurricane Sandy. We will be focusing in particular on the data they gather for New Jersey, New York, and Connecticut and whether they find items on the sea floor larger than one cubic meter in size (about 35 cubic feet). That survey data then will be processed by the University of New Hampshire’s Joint Hydrographic Center. Their analyses will inform our Marine Debris Program’s future efforts to prioritize and remove the submerged debris items detected in these surveys.

Thanks also go to the Office of Response and Restoration’s Doug Helton, Michele Jacobi, and Jason Rolfe and the Office of Marine Sanctuaries’ Lisa Symons for contributing to this post.


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NOAA Report Identifies Shipwrecks with the Potential to Pollute

On May 14, 1942, the U.S. Army Air Corps photographed the location of the burning tanker Potrero del Llano. (National Archives)

On May 14, 1942, the U.S. Army Air Corps photographed the location of the burning tanker Potrero del Llano. (National Archives)

Over the past couple years I’ve talked about the threat of oil spills from historic shipwrecks, including the S/S Edmund Fitzgerald in the Great Lakes and the S/S Montebello off southern California. But we know that these wrecks are just the tip of the iceberg.

The past century of commerce and warfare has dotted our waters with shipwrecks, many of which have never been surveyed. Since 2010, my office, working with the Office of National Marine Sanctuaries and the U.S. Coast Guard, has been systematically looking at which of these wrecks might pose a substantial threat of leaking oil still on board. This work is part of NOAA’s Remediation of Underwater Legacy Environmental Threats (RULET) project.

We used a tiered approach to develop an initial priority list of vessels for risk assessment. This process narrowed down the estimated 20,000 vessels in U.S. waters to 573 that met the initial criteria. The ships had to be over 1,000 gross tons (making them about 200 feet or longer), built to carry or use oil as fuel, and made of a durable material such as steel.

Understanding how a shipwreck site formed helps explain why vessels, like the Dixie Arrow which initially carried approximately 86,136 barrels of crude oil, but was demolished during World War II, no longer remain intact and are no longer potentially polluting shipwrecks. (NOAA)

Understanding how a shipwreck site formed helps explain why vessels, like the Dixie Arrow which initially carried approximately 86,136 barrels of crude oil, but was demolished during World War II, no longer remain intact and are no longer potentially polluting shipwrecks. (NOAA)

Additional research revealed the actual number posing a substantial pollution threat was lower because of the violent nature in which some ships sank (many were lost in World War II). This is because, for example, a ship hit and sunk by torpedoes would be less likely to still have intact tanks of oil. And other vessels were taken off our radar because they have fallen apart or were demolished because they were navigational hazards.

We also used computer models to predict the environmental and economic consequences of oil spills from these vessels. Those results then helped us sort out which wrecks might pose the biggest risks.

A map showing the name, location, and priority level of shipwrecks recommended to the U.S. Coast Guard for further pollution assessment. (NOAA)

A map showing the name, location, and priority level of shipwrecks recommended to the U.S. Coast Guard for further pollution assessment. (NOAA)

On May 20, we released both an overall report describing this work and our recommendations and 87 individual wreck assessments. The individual risk assessments highlight not only concerns about potential ecological and socio-economic impacts, but they also characterize most of the vessels as being historically significant. In addition, many of them are grave sites, both civilian and military.

The national report and the 87 risk assessments are available at http://sanctuaries.noaa.gov/protect/ppw/.


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With Tropical Storm Isaac’s Passing, Crews Resume Cutting Apart Grounded Ship and Protecting Coral at Mona Island, Puerto Rico

Response barges are anchored near the grounded M/V Jireh.

August 20, 2012 — Response barges are anchored near the M/V Jireh (foreground), which grounded on coral reefs in June. (U.S. Coast Guard/Jaclyn Young)

With the passage of the Tropical Storm formerly known as Hurricane Isaac, salvage crews and coral ecologists are once again back on Mona Island, Puerto Rico, working to remove the grounded freighter M/V Jireh while also protecting the island’s corals.

In previous ship salvage cases involving coral habitats, biologists have observed considerable coral damage from not only the physical placement of anchors, cables, and support vessels, but also continued shifting and grinding from the grounded vessel. As a result, crews are working carefully to keep that from happening here.

In such a long and complicated salvage project, it is impossible to prevent all impacts, but crews are continuing to remove and reattach corals at risk from the grounded ship. Nearly 1,000 corals have been moved already. These transplanted corals are expected to have a high survival rate and reduce the overall impacts from the vessel removal operation.

A NOAA-authorized biologist is on site during all coral relocation operations to make sure corals are properly handled and reattached to reefs. Before responders attempt to refloat the vessel, qualified divers will evaluate the corals in the area and determine an exit path for the damaged ship that will have the least impact to the surrounding coral habitat. This may or may not turn out to be the same path the ship took when it entered the reef. Depending on conditions after the vessel’s removal, the coral colonies may be relocated back to their original place on the reef.

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The U.S. Coast Guard and the rest of the response crew have been working carefully to cut up portions of the ship, in order to lighten the vessel enough to refloat and remove it from the reef. Once disassembled, the removed portions of the ship are loaded onto a barge and taken to Puerto Rico for recycling.

Additionally, since the grounding on June 21, crews already have removed 600 tons of oiled cargo and more than 5,000 gallons of oil-water mixture.

Here you can see their plan for removing and disposing of this damaged vessel.

Jireh removal and disposal process.

Jireh removal and disposal process. (Jireh Grounding Unified Command)

Once the ship is refloated, the plan is to scuttle (purposefully sink) the wreck 12 miles away from Mona Island. After it is sunk, the wreckage is not expected to pose any additional risk to corals or other marine life. The difference with this shipwreck is the location.

“Intertidal wrecks are unstable and scour the reefs as they degrade and fall apart, while a wreck far out at sea becomes a stable deep-water habitat over time,” said Doug Helton, Incident Operations Coordinator for the Office of Response and Restoration.

The Coast Guard reports that removing the Jireh from Mona Island is the best solution to protect the sensitive environment and coral reefs surrounding this highly valuable natural reserve. Once this threat is permanently removed, NOAA divers will conduct an assessment of the grounding area and continue to work with local environmental agencies to ensure its full recovery.


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NOAA Hauls 50 Metric Tons of Debris out of Hawaiian Waters

Scientists load onto a small boat marine debris collected at Midway Atoll in Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument.

Scientists load onto a small boat marine debris collected at Midway Atoll in Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument. (NOAA)

With their eyes on the ocean, a team of 17 NOAA scientists recently removed nearly 50 metric tons of marine debris—mostly abandoned fishing nets and plastics—from the turquoise waters of Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands.

Part of an annual effort to restore the area’s coral ecosystems, this latest sweep of marine debris also scanned for items which might have been carried there from the 2011 Japan tsunami. However, nothing could be linked directly to the tragedy.

“While we did not find debris with an obvious connection to last year’s tsunami, this mission was a great opportunity to leverage activities that had already been planned and see what we might find,” said Carey Morishige, Pacific Islands regional coordinator for the NOAA Marine Debris Program, part of the Office of Response and Restoration. “It’s also an important reminder that marine debris is an everyday problem, especially here in the Pacific.”

NOAA divers cut a Hawaiian green sea turtle free from a derelict fishing net during a recent mission to collect marine debris in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands.

NOAA divers cut a Hawaiian green sea turtle free from a derelict fishing net during a recent mission to collect marine debris in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. (NOAA)

Through NOAA’s Damage Assessment, Restoration, and Remediation Program, the Office of Response and Restoration is helping restore coral reefs here after the M/V Casitas grounded on Pearl and Hermes Atoll in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands in July 2005. Part of the funding for the marine debris removal survey comes from the legal settlement for the Casitas ship grounding, as well as from the NOAA Marine Debris Program and Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument.

This recurring issue of marine debris threatens Hawaiian monk seals, sea turtles and other marine life in the coral reef ecosystems of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands.  The scientists on this mission loaded the massive amounts of collected debris on to the 224-ft. NOAA Ship Oscar Elton Sette.

NOAA collected nearly 50 metric tons of marine debris, piled on ship's deck.

NOAA collected nearly 50 metric tons of marine debris, shown here with researchers sitting on top of the piles of nets aboard the ship Oscar Elton Sette during a July 2012 survey in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. (NOAA)

“What surprises us is that after many years of marine debris removal in Papahānaumokuākea and more than 700 metric tons of debris later, we are still collecting a significant amount of derelict fishing gear from the shallow coral reefs and shorelines,” said Kyle Koyanagi, marine debris operations manager at NOAA Fisheries’ Pacific Islands Fisheries Science Center and chief scientist for the mission. “The ship was at maximum capacity and we did not have any space for more debris.”

This year, marine debris was collected from waters and shorelines around the islands and atolls of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands: Kure Atoll, Midway Atoll, Pearl and Hermes Atoll, Lisianski Island and Laysan Island.

Marine debris removed during this project will be used to create electricity through Hawaii’s Nets to Energy Program, a public-private partnership. Since 2002, it has collected and converted more than 730 metric tons of abandoned fishing gear into electricity—enough to power nearly 350 Hawaii homes for a year.


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What Happens After Abandoning Ship

Twenty three years after running aground on a reef in Alaska and causing one of the largest spills in U.S. history, the tanker Exxon Valdez is back in the news—this time to keep it from being intentionally grounded on a beach in India.

The Indian Supreme Court has ruled that the Exxon Valdez (now called the Oriental Nicety) cannot be grounded and cut apart on the shores of Gujarat until it can be cleaned of residual oils and other contaminants.

Workers scrap ships for parts and metal on a beach in Bhatiari, Chittagong, Bangladesh.

Workers scrap ships for parts and metal (“ship breaking”) on a beach in Bhatiari, Chittagong, Bangladesh. Credit: Naquib Hossain, Creative Commons License: Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0).

What’s known as “ship breaking” is a dirty business, and many of the world’s tired and obsolete vessels end up being grounded on beaches in India, Bangladesh, and Pakistan and cut apart for scrap steel.

In recent years the business of ship scrapping has become a major health and environmental concern. Many ship breaking yards in these developing countries have little or no safety equipment or environmental protections, and toxic materials from these ships, including oils, heavy metals, and asbestos, escape into the environment.

A derelict vessel grounded on a coal reef in Samoa.

A rusted-out derelict vessel still sits grounded on a coal reef in Samoa. (NOAA/Doug Helton)

Obsolete vessels and ship scrapping can also be a problem here in the U.S. Last year, the 431-foot S/S Davy Crockett made the news down on the Columbia River near Vancouver, Wash.

Mysterious oil sheens on the river were traced upriver to the former Navy Liberty ship that had begun leaking oil due to improper and unpermitted salvage operations.

Next week I will be at the Clean Pacific Conference in Long Beach, Calif., and presenting information on the challenges of dealing with abandoned and derelict vessels in the U.S. I know that the Davy Crockett and the issues it raised will come up.

Vessels are abandoned for all sorts of reasons, including storms (particularly hurricanes/typhoons which may damage large numbers of boats), community-wide economic stress or change (e.g., declining commercial fishing industries), and financial or legal issues of individual owners.  The high cost of proper vessel disposal can lead some folks to just walk away.

Hopefully we can help improve how we respond to these vessels and increase prevention programs to prevent abandonment. If you are interested in this issue, there is more information on NOAA’s Abandoned Vessel Program.

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