NOAA's Response and Restoration Blog

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

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.

Author: doughelton

Doug Helton is the Regional Operations Supervisor for the West Coast, Alaska, Hawaii, and Great Lakes and also serves as 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.

2 thoughts on “A Tale of Two Shipwrecks: When History Threatens to Pollute

  1. Three cheers to NOAA on this; but wouldn’t it have been better to also include some estimate of the cost of these efforts, so we could judge the cost-effectiveness – and I hope I’m not snipped for using that particular dirty word.

    Isn’t the larger context that most of the oil found in the world’s oceans is from natural seeps? In particular, the oil seeping into the Santa Barbara Channel is enormous and ongoing. The straightforward way of stopping that seepage is extracting the oil from the reservoirs it’s in through drilling and making use of it on shore. But is that politically possible? Ohnoohnoohnoohno…

    • From the author, Doug Helton:

      Spills and spill response are expensive. I wrote a paper about 15 years ago that looked at response costs and costs have risen significantly since then.

      Responding to oil that is trapped in a vessel hull is generally much cheaper than dealing with an emergency spill response, as the effort can be planned. And recovering the oil before it spills and spreads prevents environmental, human health, and safety impacts as well as community and economic disruptions like fishing closures and other social dimensions of spills. I don’t have the costs for the General Zalinski (it was the Canadian government dealing with it), but the Catala cost about $6.5 million to recover 34,500 gallons of heavy oil and 360,000 gallons of oily water. That is a lot of money, but a 2007 spill of about 53,000 gallons of heavy oil in San Francisco Bay cost over $70 million to clean up and another $44 million in restoration costs.

      From NOAA’s perspective, when we identify priorities for addressing potentially polluting shipwrecks, we have to consider that: 1) sometimes even small spills can cause big impacts, 2) those impacts may require costly restoration via the natural resource damage assessment process, and 3) potential restoration costs from a spill would also be considered when the Coast Guard or state decides what, if anything, to do about a wreck.

      As far as oil spills and natural seeps go, California’s Santa Barbara County has some extensive information reviewing studies comparing the biological impacts of both. A quick summary:

      “Spills differ from seeps in many ways, but the greatest difference is probably the rate of influx of oil into the environment. Spills release large volumes of oil, usually from a specific location in a short time. The sudden injection of oil into the environment can overwhelm the natural mechanisms for dispersing and degrading the oil, so that large amounts are deposited on shore, many animals are killed, and sensitive habitats are impacted, sometimes with long-term consequences. Hence, impacts on the environment from a spill are not simply an incremental addition to the impacts of natural seeps, but can be far more destructive.
      …Santa Barbara’s seeps release oil over tens of square kilometers every day, and the atmosphere and water column take it up at about the same rate. Toxic constituents are released steadily, but gradually, over the region, allowing currents and natural mixing to dilute their concentrations. Tar mounds on the ocean floor are colonized by bacteria, forming the basis of productive meiofaunal communities. Seep oil does not accumulate on the surface in very thick layers, nor does it cause oiling of many birds or result in heavily tarred beaches …
      Major spills, however, may blanket the sea surface of a large area with fresh oil. A thick, gooey water-in-oil emulsion, or “mousse,” often forms on the surface after oil spills, eventually falling to the ocean floor in large amounts or fouling the intertidal zone, beaches, rocky shores, and salt marshes. Organisms including larvae may have no opportunity to escape the sudden influx of oil and high concentrations of its dissolved toxic fractions. Spills often kill large numbers of animals including sea birds and marine mammals.”

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