Time bombs ticking

In following up a few questions I still had in my mind about my last post, I was actually shocked to stumble into this world of new-to-me information that I had no idea existed

As I was digging a little further on the story about the Brigadier General M. G. Zalinski, a concern that had been raised by Hartley Bay people at the Enbridge Northern Gateway Joint Panel Review Hearings last month, one google search led to another and pretty soon I had a pretty good research array.

I have just learned that there are over 8,500 potentially polluting shipwrecks in the world, most of them relics of the Second World War, and in their aging hulks there lies a serious threat to the oceans and marine ecosystems in all the seas of the world.

In this case, I cannot see that ignorance is going to promote my bliss, so here is some of what I’ve been finding out about. It’s obviously an issue that needs attention and more action than has been forthcoming to date, around here or anywhere else for that matter.

I have often seen the sites of WW II relics promoted as tourist attractions on TV, especially the ones in coral sea lagoons in the South Pacific. What I had not known, was that in many cases, the beauty is not what it seems. I had not realized that the deteriorating remains of battleships, their edges now blurred and softened by the growth of corals and marine life,  have become a pernicious threat to the well-being of the ocean environment and the people who depend on the sea for everything.

The Second World War put more people, machinery and armaments on the sea than any other human event in history. By the time it ended in 1945 the world had seen the largest loss of shipping ever in such a short period of time. More than 35 million tons of shipping steel are littered on the sea floor around the world.

There are over 8,500 potentially polluting shipwrecks in the world. Chart from Oceangate Foundation.

Of the total number of sunk ships, 243 are tankers, and according to a Sea Australia estimate, 79 of those were those tankers carrying a total of  939 million litres of fuel (207 million imperial gallons or 6 million barrels).

Until ten years ago governments had been satisfied to take an  “out of sight, out of mind”  approach and leave the wrecks alone.

“Now sixty years on, the global risk of marine pollution from these sunken and scuttled WWII vessels could be said to be one of the most significant risks to the global marine environment from shipping along with ballast water and marine introduced species,” said Rean Montfils of Sea Australia in 2007.

As with the Brigadier General M. G. Zalinski resting in 30 metres of water in Grenville Channel on BC’s west coast, the problem is disintegration and corrosion in the ships’ hulls, pipes, fittings and bulkheads. The rate of deterioration varies with location, climate, movement of current and disturbance, but one fear is that all the ships are beginning to show signs of disintegration at the same time. Many have begun to leak oil, in many cases the thick bunker oil that was often used as fuel.

The problem is pronounced in the South Pacific were several large derelict tankers lie in warm, shallow water and are leaking oil.

“Small island nations are easily susceptible to possible cultural extinction if a sunken vessel has a catastrophic release and creates a dead zone around an atoll. Native peoples will be forced to emigrate to another island in their chain or possibly to another island nation. The possibility of cultural extinction cannot be ignored by Flag State nations,” said T. Gilbert in a paper presented to the International Oil Spill Conference meeting in Vancouver, BC in 2003.

A lot of methods and technologies for recovery of oil have been researched and several successful operations have been completed. One of those was the SS Mississinew, a large tanker ship which had been sunk by torpedo in 1944 at the Ulithi Atoll, Yap State, Micronesia. In 2003, a US team using the “hot tapping” technique removed almost 2 million gallons (US) from the submerged hull. It was a large operation but conducted in relatively easy circumstances – warm shallow water, and good visibility. Cost of the operation was $4.5 million.

Other wrecks in the area which are known to be leaking have not yet been dealt with.

“The WWII wreck issue is not a technology problem but a failure on the part of the responsible parties to accept that these vessels could possibly pose a threat to the environment. It is clear, however that the problem is too big to be ignored. Passive monitoring may only work for a while, but the nature of seawater and the effect of corrosion and structural deterioration of these vessels and the passing of over 60 years indicate that it is only a matter of time; and not if these vessels will pollute and leak but when they will pollute-and leak. When they do, the extent of deterioration on the wrecks may cause a catastrophic oil spill which may pollute the environment and affect fisheries, tourism and trade,” said Monfils in his research paper.

This is the WWII relic of the SS Richard Montgomery, an American arms carrier that broke anchor and drifted onto a sandbar in the Thames Estuary in England in 1944. Attempts were made to remove the cargo but given up because it was too dangerous. The ship sits there still today heavily monitored. The ship contains a huge number of mega-explosives, that if detonated would have the force of a 4.5 earthquake, throw a 1,000-foot-wide column of water and debris nearly 10,000 feet into the air and produce a 20 ft crater in the sea bed.


About blue sea sky

By Cynthia Jones Davies, writer researcher who lives on Haida Gwaii.
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One Response to Time bombs ticking

  1. Malcolm Dunderdale says:

    An exemplary report Cynthia….Congratulations.

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