is known to those diving off Cape Hatteras as the “slick wreck” because
of the rainbow sheen on the water surface that reveals its resting
place on the seafloor.
470-foot tanker carrying about 78,755 barrels of oil, the Lancing was
steaming north past Diamond Shoals on April 7, 1942, when it was
torpedoed by the Nazi submarine U-552. The engine room was struck,
blasting a huge hole in its side and killing a crew member. The
survivors managed to escape in four lifeboats before the ship sunk.
vessel, lying nearly upside down on the bottom of the Atlantic about 14
miles off Hatteras, has likely been leaking oil for years.
to a report released this spring by the National Oceanic and
Atmospheric Administration, “2012 Risk Assessment for Potentially
Polluting Wrecks in U.S. Waters,” there are 36 submerged vessels in
U.S. waters that contain oil that could threaten the nation’s coastal
marine resources. Of those, NOAA recommended 17 for further assessment
and possible removal of the oil.
Coast Guard has recently named the Lancing as a top priority in
offshore North Carolina, along with four other wrecks in district
waters, said Leonard Rich, environmental protection specialist for the
Fifth Coast Guard District, which encompasses the mid-Atlantic region
from North Carolina to New Jersey.
said that the Coast Guard, with the assistance of divers, boaters, and
fishers, will closely monitor the vessels for sheen and other signs of
“The time we’re most concerned about getting reports is right after a hurricane,” he said.
district’s other prioritized vessels are the Francis E. Powell off the
Eastern Shore of Virginia, with 93,000 barrels of fuel oil; the William
Rockefeller, off Cape Hatteras, with 150,000 barrels of fuel; the W.L
Steed, off Cape May, with 78,000 barrels of fuel, and the China Arrow,
off the Virginia/Delaware coast, with 93,000 gallons of fuel.
sheen on the water has also been reported in the vicinity of the
Francis. E. Powell and the Northern Pacific, which sunk off Cape May.
NOAA report includes links to assessments for 87 vessels, ranked as
high, medium, and low priority, as well as its ranking for worst case
discharge and most probable discharge.
of the 36 high-risk wrecks cited in the NOAA report are located off
North Carolina and Florida, victims of the German U-boat campaign in
the early part of World War II that targeted merchant ships.
tanker George McDonald, which went down off Savannah, Ga., in 1960 with
115,000 barrels of fuel, was also named a high priority in the Seventh
Coast Guard District. Since the ocean currents typically move south to
north, any oil release from the vessel has the potential to pollute
North Carolina waters.
comparing information from numerous government sources, scientific
investigations, newspaper accounts, survivor and eyewitness reports,
and historic records, the initial 20,000 wrecks counted off U.S. coasts
and the Great Lakes were methodically culled down to about 1,000, then
2010, Congress appropriated $1 million for NOAA to identify the wrecks
that presented the most risk to ecologic and economic interests from
oil seepage or spills. The cultural and historic significance of the
wrecks and whether they are gravesites were also considered, as well as
the numerous laws in place governing protection and disturbance of the
the Battle of the Atlantic, when U-boats plucked off merchant vessels
as if it were a turkey shoot, ships were typically lost in shallow
coastal waters while transiting the wartime shipping routes. As a
result, most of those vessels were demolished as navigational hazards
or destroyed in later military training missions. Whatever oil they
carried is long gone.
the 87 vessels NOAA developed risk assessments for, 47 of the vessels
have unknown or unconfirmed locations, and 53 were casualties of World
War I, World War II, or the Korean War.
Symons, the resource protection coordinator for NOAA’s Office of
National Marine Sanctuaries and an author of the report, said that it
is difficult to determine just how much oil remains in each wreck, but
that the report opted for a conservative estimate of more rather than
Symons said that there has never been a massive spill from the sunken vessels – yet.
have not had a catastrophic release from any of these historic or
legacy vessels in the U.S. or anywhere else in the world,” she said.
But, she added, the potential is there. “These vessels are old – most
are close to 50 years or more.”
NOAA report is an extension of its Remediation of Underwater Legacy
Environmental Threats project – RULET in government lingo -- that
generated a database of 573 sunken tankers, barges, freighters and
other large vessels that carried varying amounts of oil. The agency
said that the project is the first of its kind to include comprehensive
risk assessments and prioritization on a number of wrecks. It also
employed modeling for each wreck to project risks and conducted
archaeological and engineering assessments to determine the condition
of each and the potential for spillage.
“Before,” Symons said, “all we had was 20,000 dots on a map.”
vessel information and location details in the report can be
incorporated into the Coast Guard’s spill response plans, and would be
helpful if any oil is observed, Rich said.
Coast Guard also has an ongoing cooperative relationship with other
federal, state, and local agencies in monitoring oil spills, he said.
If the port captain or the sector commander believes there is an
imminent threat, he or she can request funds from the federal Oil Spill
Liability Trust Fund, which is paid into by members of the shipping
industry. Remediation is not permitted under the law without first
having an imminent threat, Rich said.
removal operations can be very costly and complicated, depending on the
location of the wreck. But sometimes the benefits outweigh the expense,
and monitoring can be a long-term expense that does not guarantee there
won’t be a need for future pollution-related mitigation.
is important to consider,” the report said, “that for many wrecks, the
most likely discharge scenario is one of chronic or episodic discharges
that may result in multiple or continuous responses and ongoing and
cumulative natural resource damages.”
California, for instance, the vessel Jacob Luckenbach created several
spills over the course of a decade, costing millions in clean-up costs
and oiling more than 51,000 birds.
monitor-or-remove dilemma was summed up in a passage the report cited
from the 2005 Oil Spill Conference Issue Paper on Potentially Polluting
Wrecks in Marine Waters:
we invest time and resources into sufficiently characterizing the
pollution threat in order to support decisions on mitigating actions?
Or, do we gamble on the capacity of the marine environment and its
inhabitants, as well as our respective economies, to withstand any
eventual release of oil pollution these wrecks may produce?”
story is provided courtesy of Coastal Review Online, the coastal news
and features service of the N.C. Coastal Federation. You can read other
stories about the North Carolina coast at www.nccoast.org.)
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