Oil Mission Launched on WWII Sunken Ship

Published Oct 11, 2011 5:18 PM by The Maritime Executive

U.S. officials this week are launching a mission on an underwater WWII shipwreck to uncover how much oil remains in the hull vessel as it sits off of California’s central coast. 

The SS Montebello was a WWII-era ship that sank in 1941 after being hit by a torpedo sent by a Japanese submarine.  The Montebello was believed to be carrying more than 3 million gallons of oil, and as of recently fears have been growing about the possibility of a major oil spill, like the 1969 Santa Barbara oil spill.  The Montebello sits about 5 miles off the coast and about 900 feet below the surface of Cambria, California.

The 440-foot Montebello may have been leaking oil over the years already, but officials say it’s likely that the majority of the crude remains in the hull.  U.S. Coast Guard spokesman Adam Eggers told Associated Press that the 70-year-old oil likely has the consistency of peanut butter, and that no one knows what oil this old will do.  Eggers said that where the Montebello sits on the seafloor, it is 40 degrees, and in the event of a leak, the oil rising to higher water temperatures causing it to warm and liquefy, or it could be a rock-like substance. 

State Republican Sen. Sam Blakeslee told AP that this is one of those issues that hadn’t been on anyone’s radar until the Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, which shed monumental light and awareness to possible environmental mishaps. 

The $2.3 million operation funded by oil companies will see divers operating a remote controlled vehicle to assess the shipwreck and gather oil samples.  After the initial 12-day observations and sample retrieval, the scientists will determine a plan on how to best manage the potentially catastrophic historic shipwreck sitting idle on the California ocean floor. 

A report with the recommended course of action is expected to be issued later this year.