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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What Was the Fate of Lake Erie’s Leaking Shipwreck, the Argo?

Two people on a boat inspect a diver in a full dive suit.

A diver, wearing a positive pressure dive suit, is inspected by his coworkers prior to conducting dive operations for the Argo response in Lake Erie, Nov. 24, 2015. Divers conducting operations during the Argo response are required to wear specialized dive suits designed for the utmost safety to the diver while ensuring flexibility, ease of decontamination, and chemical resistance. (U.S. Coast Guard)

At the end of October, we reported that our oil spill experts were helping the U.S. Coast Guard with a spill coming from the tank barge Argo in Lake Erie. The unusual twist in this case was that the leaking Argo was located at the bottom of the lake under approximately 40 feet of water. Nearly 80 years earlier, on October 20, 1937, this ship had foundered in a storm and sank in western Lake Erie.

At this point, the pollution response for the Argo is wrapping up, and we have more information about this shipwreck and the fate of its cargo.

For example, we knew that originally this ship was loaded with thousands of barrels of crude oil and benzol (an old commercial name for the chemical benzene), but after decades of sitting underwater, were the eight tanks holding them still intact? How much of the oil and chemical cargo was still inside them? What exactly was causing the discolored slicks on the lake surface? What was the threat to people and the environment from this pollution?

In Less Than Ship-Shape

Two hands place a label on a jar of oil.

A responder labels a sample of product for analysis extracted from the Lake Erie Barge Argo Nov. 11, 2015. NOAA was involved in coordinating environmental sampling and analysis of the leaking chemicals coming from this 1937 shipwreck. (U.S. Coast Guard)

Based on our previous work with NOAA’s Remediation of Underwater Legacy Environmental Threats (RULET) project, we had identified the Argo as a potential pollution threat in 2013. It was one of five potentially polluting wrecks identified in the Great Lakes. However, the exact location of the wreck was unknown, and the barge was thought to be on the Canadian side of the lake.

But in September 2015, the Cleveland Underwater Explorers located the vessel, which was confirmed to be in U.S. waters of Lake Erie and appeared from side-scan sonar survey imagery to be intact. Divers commissioned by the Coast Guard surveyed the wreck in October and found its eight cargo tanks were intact.

Yet they also observed something slowly leaking from a small rivet hole in the vessel’s structure. After sampling the leaking material, we now know that it was primarily benzene with traces of a light petroleum product.

Lighter the Load

Two responders carry a large tube next to pipe and holding tanks.

Responders aboard one of two work barges for the Lake Erie Barge Argo response prepare the receiving tanks in this Nov. 18, 2015 photo in preparation for lightering operations of the Argo. All chemicals and petroleum products were successfully removed from the wreck of the barge. (U.S. Coast Guard)

From late October through early December, we had a NOAA Scientific Support Coordinator and support team working with the Coast Guard’s response in Toledo, Ohio. One of our primary functions was advising the Coast Guard on chemical hazards (e.g., benzene is known to cause cancer). For example, we were modeling where the chemicals would travel through the air and across the water surface if a sizable release were to occur during the wreck’s salvage operations.

Responders finished lightering operations, which removed all remaining chemicals and oil from the barge to another vessel, on December 1. Based on sampling, we believe any residual chemical traces in the sediment surrounding the wreck will continue to break down naturally and do not pose a threat to people or aquatic life in the vicinity of the wreck.

Over the course of the response, NOAA provided almost 30 trajectory forecasts for surface slicks, daily weather forecasts, and data management support via our online response mapping application, ERMA, which displayed NOAA charts and weather, NOAA and Canadian spill trajectories, spill modeling and aerial survey information, spill response plans, and data for environmentally sensitive habitats and species in the area.

NOAA, along with state and federal partners, also managed the development of environmental monitoring, water sampling, sediment sampling, and waste disposal plans for the Argo’s response. In addition, the NOAA Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory provided science and logistical support and the NOAA Office of National Marine Sanctuaries provided key historical and archival research on the vessel and cargo.


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Using NOAA Tools to Help Deal with the Sinking Problem of Wrecked and Abandoned Ships

Workers direct the lifting of a rusted boat from a waterway onto a barge.

Clearing a derelict vessel from the Hylebos Waterway in Tacoma, Washington. NOAA has created several tools and resources for mapping, tracking, and dealing with shipwrecks and abandoned vessels. (Washington Department of Natural Resources/ Tammy Robbins) Used under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic license.

Walk along a waterfront in the United States and wherever you find boats moored, you won’t be hard pressed to find one that has been neglected or abandoned to the point of rusting, leaking, or even sinking. It’s a sprawling and messy issue, one that is hard to fix. When you consider the thousands of shipwrecks strewn about U.S. waters, the problem grows even larger.

How do these vessels end up like this in the first place? Old ships, barges, and recreational vessels end up along coastal waters for a number of reasons: they were destroyed in wartime, grounded or sunk by accident or storm, or just worn out and left to decay. By many estimates shipping vessels have a (very approximate) thirty-year lifetime with normal wear and tear. Vessels, both large and small, may be too expensive for the owner to repair, salvage, or even scrap.

So, wrecked, abandoned, and derelict ships can be found, both invisible and in plain sight, in most of our marine environments, from sandy beaches and busy harbors to the deep ocean floor.

As we’ve discussed before, these vessels can be a serious problem for both the marine environment and economy. While no single comprehensive database exists for all wrecked, abandoned, and derelict vessels (and if it did, it would be very difficult to keep up-to-date), efforts are underway to consolidate existing information in various databases to get a larger view of the problem.

NOAA has created several of these databases and resources, each created for specific needs, which are used to map and track shipwrecks and abandoned vessels. These efforts won’t solve the whole issue, but they are an important step along that path.

Solution to Pollution

Black and white photo of a steam ship half sinking in the Great Lakes.

The S/S America sank after hitting rocks in Lake Superior in 1928, but the wreck was found close to the water surface in 1970. This ship has become the most visited wreck in the Great Lakes, where divers can still see a Model-T Ford on board. (Public domain)

NOAA’s Remediation of Underwater Legacy Environmental Threats (RULET) project identifies the location and nature of potential sources of oil pollution from sunken vessels. These include vessels sunk during past wars, many of which are also grave sites and now designated as national historic sites. The focus of RULET sites are wrecks with continued potential to leak pollutants.

Many of these wrecks begin to leak years, even decades, after they have sunk. An example of such a wreck is Barge Argo, recently rediscovered and found to be leaking as it lay 40 feet under the surface of Lake Erie. The barge was carrying over 4,500 barrels of crude oil and the chemical benzol when it sank in 1937. It had been listed in the NOAA RULET database since 2013. U.S. Coast Guard crews, with support from NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration, are currently working on a way to safely remove the leaking fuel and cargo.

As in the Barge Argo case, the RULET database is especially useful for identifying the sources of “mystery sheens” —slicks of oil or chemicals that are spotted on the surface of the water and don’t have a clear origin. NOAA’s Office of National Marine Sanctuaries and Office of Response and Restoration jointly manage the RULET database.

Information in RULET is culled from a larger, internal NOAA Sanctuaries database called Resources and Undersea Threats (RUST). RUST lists about 30,000 sites of sunken objects, of which about 20,000 are shipwrecks. Other sites represent munitions dumpsites, navigational obstructions, underwater archaeological sites, and other underwater resources.

Avoiding Future Wrecks

The NOAA Office of Coast Survey’s Wrecks and Obstructions Database contains information on submerged wrecks and obstructions identified within U.S. maritime boundaries, with a focus on hazards to navigation. Information for the database is sourced from the NOAA Electronic Navigational Charts (ENC®) and Automated Wrecks and Obstructions Information System (AWOIS).

The database contains information on identified submerged wrecks and obstructions within the U.S. maritime boundaries, including position (latitude and longitude), and, where available, a brief description and attribution.

Head to the Hub

Recently, the NOAA Marine Debris Program developed and launched the Abandoned and Derelict Vessels (ADV) InfoHub to provide a centralized source of information on cast-off vessels that contribute to the national problem of marine debris. Hosted on the NOAA Marine Debris Program website, the ADV InfoHub will allow users to find abandoned and derelict vessel publications, information on funding to remove them, case studies, current projects, related stories, and FAQs.

Each coastal state (including states bordering the Great Lakes) will have a dedicated page where users can find information on state-specific abandoned and derelict vessel programs, legislation, and funding as well as links to case studies from that particular state and relevant publications and legal reviews. Each state page will also provide the name of the department within that state government that handles abandoned and derelict vessel issues along with contact information.

Power Display

In select parts of the country, the Office of Response and Restoration is now using its Environmental Response Management Application (ERMA®) to map the locations of and key information for abandoned and derelict vessels. ERMA is our online mapping tool that integrates data, such as ship locations, shoreline types, and environmental sensitivity, in a centralized format. Here, we use it to show abandoned and derelict vessels within the context of related environmental information displayed on a Geographic Information System (GIS) map. In Washington’s Puget Sound, for example, the U.S. Coast Guard and Washington Department of Natural Resources can use this information in ERMA to help prioritize removing the worst offenders and raise awareness about the issue.

A view of Pacific Northwest ERMA, a NOAA online mapping tool which can bring together a variety of environmental and response data. Here, you can see the black dots where ports are located around Washington's Puget Sound as well as the colors indicating the shoreline's characteristics and vulnerability to oil.

A view of Pacific Northwest ERMA, a NOAA online mapping tool which can bring together a variety of environmental and response data. Here, you can see the black dots where ports are located around Washington’s Puget Sound as well as the colors indicating the shoreline’s characteristics and vulnerability to oil. (NOAA)

Now part of both Pacific Northwest ERMA and Southwest ERMA (coastal California), our office highlighted ERMA at a May 2015 NOAA Marine Debris Program workshop for data managers. This meeting of representatives from 15 states, four federal agencies, and Canada showcased ERMA as an efficient digital platform for displaying abandoned vessel information in a more comprehensive picture at a regional level.

Once again, removing abandoned vessels or reducing their impacts can be very difficult and costly. But we have been seeing more and more signs of progress in recent years, which requires an increasing amount of collaboration among local, state, and federal agencies and education among the public. By providing more detailed and comprehensive information, NOAA is hoping to help resource managers prioritize and make more informed decisions on how to address the various threats these vessels pose to our coasts.

The Office of Response and Restoration’s Doug Helton also contributed to this post.

Photo of derelict vessel used under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic license.


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Remembering the Veterans That Served America and the Historic Shipwrecks They Left Behind

This is a post by the Office of Response and Restoration’s Donna Roberts.

Did you know that over 20,000 shipwrecks rest on the ocean floor off our coasts? The past century of commerce and warfare has left us with this legacy of sunken vessels dotting the seafloor around the United States.

While some of these are naval vessels, a large proportion are merchant vessels destroyed during war time. These wrecks are skewed heavily to World War II casualties such as those fallen during the “Battle of the Atlantic.” Some wrecks, such as the Civil War casualty, the USS Monitor, have been listed as National Historic Landmarks or on the National Register of Historic Places. Many of them, such as the USS Arizona at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, are either civilian or military grave sites.

Beyond their military and historic significance, these wrecks also represent an enormous human toll. Today—on Veterans Day in the United States, Armistice Day or Remembrance Day in other nations—we honor the men and women who have served in the armed forces of all nations, as well as those serving in the Merchant Marine, and commemorate those who gave their lives in that service.

The Terrible Cost of the Battle of the Atlantic

During World War II’s Battle of the Atlantic, which lasted from September 1939 until the defeat of Germany in 1945, German U-boats and warships (and later Italian submarines) were pitted against Allied convoys transporting military equipment and supplies across the Atlantic to Great Britain and the Soviet Union. This battle to control Atlantic shipping lanes involved thousands of ships and stretched across thousands of square miles of ocean.

A Coast Guard ship's crew watches an explosion in the water ahead.

On April 17, 1943, Coast Guardsmen on the deck of the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Spencer watch the explosion of a depth charge that blasted a Nazi U-boat’s hope of breaking into the center of a large convoy of ships. World War II left thousands of Allied and Axis ships — and soldiers — on the bottom of the ocean. (U.S. Coast Guard)

The losses in the battle were staggering. Between January and June 1942 alone, this battle resulted in the sinking of almost 500 ships. Historians estimate that more than 100 convoy battles took place during the war, costing Britain’s Merchant Navy more than 30,000 men and around 3,000 ships. The terrible cost for the Germans was 783 U-boats and 28,000 sailors, about 75% of the U-boat force. Although casualty statistics vary, we know that the U.S. Merchant Mariners suffered the highest rate of marine casualties of any service in World War II.

While many of these sunken vessels in U.S. waters rest in the Atlantic Ocean or Gulf of Mexico, numerous wrecks, such as the S/S Montebello, can be found in the Pacific. And of course, the wartime toll was spread across the world’s oceans, touching nearly all parts of the globe.

NOAA’s Role with Undersea Wrecks

NOAA is involved with shipwrecks in a number of ways. The agency’s role ranges from offering scientific guidance to the U.S. Coast Guard during pollution responses, to stewarding the diverse natural and cultural resources including shipwrecks in national marine sanctuaries, to creating navigational charts that show the precise locations of wrecks that could hinder maritime traffic. Most of the 20,000 wrecks resting off our coasts are old and did not carry oil as fuel or hazardous cargo; however, some of the more recent wrecks have the potential to contain—and sometimes leak—oil.

In 2002, for example, the decaying wreck of the S/S Jacob Luckenbach (carrying supplies to support the Korean War) was identified as the source of mysterious, recurring oil spills that had killed thousands of seabirds and other marine life along California’s coast. Our office joined with the U.S. Coast Guard and other agencies to remove the approximately 100,000 gallons of oil remaining in the wreck, protect the resources of the Great Farallones National Marine Sanctuary, and restore critical seabird breeding habitat in the U.S. and Canada to make up for the harm caused by the oil releases.

Two divers and a shark swim next to a large shipwreck.

Knowing how shipwreck sites formed helps explain why sunken 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)

Leaking wrecks like the Jacob Luckenbach are one reason NOAA maintains a large database of shipwrecks, dumpsites, navigational obstructions, underwater archaeological sites, and other underwater cultural resources, known as the Resources and Undersea Threats (RUST) database.

Beginning in 2010, NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration and Office of National Marine Sanctuaries systematically analyzed a subset of those wrecks which could 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. (Read more about the work conducted and the final report (PDF).) After the report was completed in 2013, the U.S. Coast Guard has worked to incorporate the information and recommendations into their regional contingency plans.

NOAA also has the privilege of protecting shipwrecks and naval battlefields though its National Marine Sanctuaries office. The first NOAA national marine sanctuary was designated in 1975 to protect the U.S. Navy warship USS Monitor, and other sanctuaries have followed in these footsteps of preserving historic wrecks. Today, you can explore fascinating undersea wrecks at Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary in the Great Lakes, and at other sanctuaries.

Wrecks and Reefs

Sometimes these submerged shipwrecks can serve as artificial reefs. Sunken wrecks are actually the most prevalent type of artificial reef. As artificial reefs, shipwrecks can create both amazing homes for a diversity of marine life and popular attractions for commercial and recreational fishers, divers, and snorkelers.

Occasionally, vessels are even sunk intentionally for this purpose. However, it can be very costly to prepare the vessels to become artificial reefs, which requires removing paints and other hazardous materials in the hull. Another consideration is the stability of the vessel and its danger to living things around it. For example, if the vessel is in shallow water, will it flip over in a storm and crush the new coral growing there? Could people or marine life get caught inside it? These considerations are why artificial reefs are often found in deep water and why establishing an artificial reef requires special review and permitting processes.

Through the study, protection, and promotion of our diverse legacy of undersea wrecks, national marine sanctuaries help us learn more about and celebrate our merchant marine and military history.

Explore Shipwrecks While Staying Dry

You can learn more about NOAA expeditions between 2008 and 2011, which explored the World War II wrecks in the “Graveyard of the Atlantic.”

You also can watch a video of researchers first discovering the long-lost location of the USS Monitor’s wreck in 1973 off the coast of North Carolina:

See what it’s like to dive among the many wrecks at the bottom of Lake Huron in Thunder Bay’s “Shipwreck Alley”:

Take a video tour of the wreck of the USS Arizona, sunk by Japanese planes on December 7, 1941, and pay homage to the members of the U.S. armed forces who gave their lives.

Video frame of a diver exploring a shipwreck.

Donna Roberts

Donna Roberts

Donna Roberts is a writer for the Emergency Response Division of NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration (OR&R). Her work supports the OR&R website and the Environmental Sensitivity Index mapping program.


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When Boats Don’t Float: From Sunken Wrecks to Abandoned Ships

Derelict boat in a Gulf marsh.

Ships end up wrecked or abandoned for many reasons and can cause a variety of environmental and economic issues. After Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, thousands of vessels like this one needed to be scrapped or salvaged in the Gulf of Mexico. (NOAA)

The waterways and coastlines of the United States are an important national resource, supporting jobs and providing views and recreation. However, the past century of maritime commerce, recreation, and even warfare has left a legacy of thousands of sunken, abandoned, and derelict vessels along our coasts, rivers, and lakes.

Some of these sunken shipwrecks are large commercial and military vessels such as the USS Arizona in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii; the Edmund Fitzgerald in the Great Lakes; and the recent tragic loss of the 790 foot cargo ship El Faro and its crew off the Bahamas.

These large vessels may be environmental threats because of their cargoes, munitions, and fuel, but many also are designated as submerged cultural resources—part of our maritime heritage. Some even serve as memorials or national historic landmarks. Unless they are pollution hazards, or shallow enough to be threats to navigation or become dive sites, most are largely forgotten and left undisturbed in their deep, watery resting sites.

But another class of wrecks, abandoned and derelict boats, are a highly visible problem in almost every U.S. port and waterway. Some vessels are dilapidated but still afloat, while others are left stranded on shorelines, or hidden just below the surface of the water. These vessels can have significant impacts on the coastal environment and economy, including oil pollution, marine debris, and wildlife entrapment. They become hazards to navigation, illegal release points for waste oils and hazardous materials, and general threats to public health and safety.

Large rusted out ship in shallow water surrounded by corals.

Some shipwrecks, like this one stranded among coral in American Samoa, can become threats to marine life and people. (NOAA)

Most derelict and abandoned vessels are the result of chronic processes—rot and rust and deterioration from lack of maintenance or economic obsolescence—with vessels slowly worsening until they sink or become too expensive to repair, and around that point are abandoned.

Others are mothballed or are awaiting repair or dismantling. If the owners can’t afford moorage and repairs, or if the costs to dismantle the ship exceed the value of the scrap, the owners often dump the boat and disappear. Many vessels end up sinking at moorings, becoming partially submerged in intertidal areas, or stranding on shorelines after their moorings fail. These vessels typically lack insurance, have little value, and have insolvent or absentee owners, a problematic and expensive combination.

Another source of abandoned vessels comes from major natural disasters. After large hurricanes, coastal storms, and tsunamis, a large number of vessels of varying sizes, conditions, and types may be damaged or set adrift in coastal waters. For example, approximately 3,500 commercial vessels and countless recreational vessels needed to be salvaged or scrapped after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita hit the Gulf Coast in 2005. And remember the empty squid boat that drifted across the Pacific Ocean after the 2011 Japan earthquake and tsunami?

NOAA’s interests in this wide range of lost or neglected ships include our roles as scientific advisers to the U.S. Coast Guard, as stewards of marine living and cultural resources (which extends to when these resources are threatened by pollution as well), and as the nation’s chart maker to ensure that wrecks are properly marked for safe navigation.

This week we’re taking a deeper dive into the many, varied, and, at times, overlooked issues surrounding the wrecks and abandoned vessels dotting U.S. waters. As recent events have shown, such as in a recently discovered leaking wreck in Lake Erie and a rusted tugboat left to rot in Seattle, this issue isn’t going away.

First, check out our infographic below exploring the different threats from wrecked and abandoned ships and a gallery of photos highlighting some examples of these ships, both famous and ordinary. UPDATE 11/16/2015: Take a look at the stories featured during this deep dive:

Illustration showing a sunken, abandonedship sticking out of the water close to shore, leaking oil, damaging habitat, posing a hazard to navigation, and creating marine debris on shore.

Sunken and abandoned ships can cause a lot of potential damage to the environment and the economy. (NOAA)


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NOAA Involved After Barge Argo, the Lake Erie Shipwreck Lost in 1937, Resurfaces with Oily Leak in U.S. Waters

Divers exit small boats into the waters of Lake Erie.

Contractors conduct dive operations at the site of a sunken barge near the Kelley’s Island Shoal in Lake Erie, Oct. 21, 2015. The divers were trying to establish the identity of the barge and if it or any of its cargo poses an environmental threat. (U.S. Coast Guard)

The 1937 sinking of a small barge in Lake Erie went largely unnoticed at the time, but the ill-fated tank barge Argo is in the news now that the wreck’s exact location—along with a leak—has been discovered.

And it wasn’t in Canadian waters, as previously thought.

Ship Down, Pollution Rising

That piece of underwater detective work by the Cleveland Underwater Explorers, combined with historical research done as part of NOAA’s RULET program (Remediation of Underwater Legacy Environmental Threats) which in 2013 identified it as a potentially polluting shipwreck, have been key factors in the developing response to the Argo.

Recently found to be on the U.S. side of the border with Canada, the wreck has been traced to reports of pollution on Lake Erie in both nations, indicating that the Argo is leaking. At the time of the sinking, the barge was reportedly loaded with 4,762 barrels of crude oil and the chemical benzol. The U.S. Coast Guard, with support from NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration and in collaboration with Canada, is ramping up pollution response efforts to address the leaking Great Lakes wreck.

While underwater response technologies do exist to address wrecks filled with oil, there are a lot of steps involved before a wreck can be safely remediated. Early efforts will focus on identifying whether the barge is leaking petroleum or benzol (or both) and determining whether the source of the leaks can be controlled immediately.

The Coast Guard is evaluating whether and how to safely remove the cargo from the sunken barge to reduce the likelihood of future pollution. NOAA is providing environmental and chemical data, weather forecasting, modeling of observed oil sheens back to the wreck, and other observations to support the response.

Linking Leaks to Potential Harm

Evaluating the magnitude of the leaks will alert us to any significant threats to people or to fish, birds, or other wildlife in the lake. NOAA and other organizations are analyzing samples of lake water and zebra mussels attached to the wreck to determine whether concentrations of hazardous chemicals are present or exceed levels of concern.

If it appears that the Argo has been leaking for some time or if the concentrations of detected pollutants are expected to be toxic to fish or wildlife, NOAA and other agencies would consider pursuing a natural resource damage assessment, with the goal of evaluating harm to public natural resources and determining whether and which restoration actions would compensate for injuries. As “natural resource trustee” agencies, NOAA, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the State of Ohio would perform these assessments over the next few months.

From Another Time

One of the compelling aspects of shipwrecks is the way they capture a moment in time. Looking back at the major events of that time, it is easy to see how a barge accident in the Great Lakes would barely garner a mention in the local papers. In 1937 Franklin Roosevelt had just been re-elected president, Adolf Hitler was chancellor of Germany, Benito Mussolini was prime minister of Italy, and Joseph Stalin was in power in the Soviet Union.

Even in the area of transportation, other momentous events dominated the news. The Golden Gate Bridge had just opened, the zeppelin Hindenburg was destroyed by fire while landing in New Jersey, and American aviation pioneer Amelia Earhart disappeared over the Pacific.

Yes, 1937 was a long time ago. It was well before the Oil Pollution Act of 1990 and other laws and regulations for the transport of oil and response to spills. When the Argo sank in a storm on October 20—79 years ago—the crew was safely rescued and the barge was left on the bottom, slowly sinking into the lake bed sediments.

The location wasn’t well known, even to maritime historians. We weren’t even sure if the wreck was in the U.S. or Canada, which shows how little is often known about the thousands of shipwrecks in North American waters—that is, until they start releasing their long-hidden cargo.

Stay tuned for a special series in early November when we’ll be diving deeper into the issues of sunken, abandoned, and derelict vessels—covering everything from when they become maritime heritage sites to how we deal with those that turn into polluting eyesores.


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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, showing a mysterious oil slick off the North Carolina coast. (U.S. Coast Guard)

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. (U.S. Coast Guard)

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.

The Office of Response and Restoration’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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