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Silent but Deadly Undersea Threat: Four Billion Gallons of Oil

Featured print article from the Maritime Executive September/October 2009 SMIT Salvage edition.

by Joseph Keefe

Slightly off your radar screen, the “Wrecks of the World: Hidden Risks of the Deep” (WOW) Conference held in Linthicum, MD in September highlighted a ticking time bomb. As industry and the regulatory arms converged at MITAGS to contemplate the mitigation and removal of as many as 4.3 billion gallons of oil lurking on some 8,500 shipwrecks around the globe, an emerging environmental threat became apparent. For those who did not attend the conference, this is also probably a good time for you to turn up the “gain” on your radar. Those dots on the screen are not “clutter.”

Hardly the Exception to the Rule
The poster child for this type of effort is arguably best represented by the sinking of the SOLAR I off the coast of the Philippines on August 11, 2006. The doomed vessel went down in bad weather off the small island of Guimaras, spilling an estimated 50,000 gallons of fuel oil. Another 450,000 gallons were thought to be still onboard the vessel, resting 900 meters below the surface. Bunker fuel continued to leak out from the sunken
tanker, initially at slow rates.

Halfway around the world, the cargo ship Runner 4 went down in Estonian waters in March of 2006 after a collision with an icebreaker. This vessel had onboard as much as one hundred tons of fuel and lube oils. The SOLAR I and the Runner 4 were notable and newsworthy as new casualties. Thousands of other vessels, however, lay in similar predicaments all over the globe, shrouded by time and indifference. In reality, these other vessels – many in advanced states of decay – are ticking time bombs, every bit as dangerous as the more high-profile wrecks.

Emerging Threat or Much Ado About Nothing?
As the salvage community, represented chiefly by the American Salvage Association (ASA ) and the International Salvage Union (ISU), contemplate what to do about the emerging problem, some doubt the serious nature of the threat and cite “natural oil seepage” as a more substantial source of oil in the world’s oceans. Although as many as 176 million gallons of oil are released by Mother Nature annually, Dr. Dagmar Etkin, President of Environmental Research Consulting, reported that the “high” estimate of oil emanating from global wrecks could be 25 times the annual natural seepage rate.

The threat represented by seeping oil from the world’s sunken wrecks has been characterized as a hidden cancer on the ocean environment. And with 75 percent of these wrecks of World War II vintage or older, the magnitude of the problem comes into clear focus and can no longer be denied. Identifying, prioritizing and funding the elimination of these threats is another problem altogether.

A Gathering Storm: Mustering the Troops
Significant challenges lay ahead. Demonstrating the importance of the issue to the general public, the media and the governments of the countries affected is the starting point. Next comes demonstrating the benefits of a “proactive” approach to these wrecks versus the “reactive” approach employed so far. The argument for a “proactive” approach using “cost benefit analysis” is gathering steam. That analysis involves many variables, including but not limited to:
• Identifying the sunken wrecks;
• Prioritizing the most dangerous of these threats;
• Monitoring the wrecks for leakage or potential thereof;
• Analyzing the impact of intervention on the environment versus “leaving it alone.”

Not every wreck will need mitigation, but a substantial number will require surveys and then periodic monitoring. The wrecks themselves come in varying conditions, ranging from chronic leakers like the USS Arizona (two gallons daily) to those considered “episodic” in nature, where quantities will be released mysteriously for a time before stopping again. Other wrecks will sit dormant for decades until affected by a catastrophic event and then release oil in larger amounts.

Table 2 shows the benefits of preparing now for what may come later. Ultimately, the liability represented by failing to act may far outweigh the costs of doing the right thing. Still, the program will be a tough sell, especially in America where health care, bank bailouts and unemployment are the high-priority budget-eaters of today. Still, the 280 million gallons of oil thought to be lurking inside 1,500 wrecks off the coast of the United States in the North Atlantic ought to give many some pause.

Financing the Solution: No Easy Answers
According to Blank Rome attorney Jonathon Waldron, “The owner is liable.” He qualified that statement by admitting that most wrecks are so old that owners will be difficult to pursue and even harder to find. In the end, the oil from the wrecks, if it is to be removed, will be funded by local governments.

At September’s WOW conference, as many as ten maritime attorneys – domestic and international – put their own particular spin on liability, indemnification, insurance, P&I cover and at least a dozen other “funding” mechanisms related to getting these wrecks identified and the threats mitigated. One of them pointed out that the American pollution fund now stands at about $1.3 billion. But, at the end of the day, more than 100 attendees were no closer to understanding where the money would come from and when that might happen.
The U.S. government, for example, thinks that an annual outlay of $12 million is plenty to eliminate the threat of more than 100 decaying, obsolete vessels lying at anchor in Beaumont, TX, Suisan Bay, CA, and Hampton Roads, VA. Arguably, those vessels – some of which contain bunker residues and other toxic substances – represent as big a threat as those buried in the Atlantic. Meanwhile, the estimated cost to pump out one submerged tanker off the coast of Estonia was put at €2.32 million ($3.41 million).

International Cooperation: Coordinating a Proactive Response
Although a concerted international effort to address the threat of these sunken wrecks is lacking, there are exceptions. Sweden and Norway (since 1992) have been actively identifying and at least beginning to address the sunken vessels in their own waters. Separately, France and Italy have begun their own cooperative effort. Finally, there is hope that international ratification of the 2007 Wreck Removal Convention will eventually come to pass. When and if that might happen is anyone’s guess, but the convention will come into force after ratification by at least ten states. The convention seeks to lay down a uniform set of rules for dealing with a wreck and its removal and also, importantly, with the issue of compulsory insurance and the right of action directly against that insurer.

Industry Rolling Up Its Sleeves: Ready for Prime Time?
With regard to the “nuts and bolts” of this issue, Hans van Rooij, Principal at Global Marine Solutions, maintains that, although technology to attack these problems is improving rapidly, the salvage industry is lagging behind the subsea industry. Still, van Rooij insists, “Technology is improving and becoming more cost-effective.”

One firm taking particular interest in the gathering inertia is Bluefin Robotics, a manufacturer of Autonomous Underwater Vehicles (AUVs), derivative systems, and related technology. Bluefin is in the business of bringing innovative and technologically advanced AUV solutions to military, commercial (oil and gas survey, sea floor mapping) and scientific markets. Michael Donovan of Bluefin is cognizant of the impact that AUV technology might have on wreck removal. Donovan told MarEx in September, “This is a logical market for our proven technology, especially when there is a need to quickly collect precise sonar imagery for salvage planning and execution.”

Martin Dean, Managing Director of Advanced Underwater Surveys Ltd (ADUS), also attended the WOW conference. ADUS, a small company spun out from university research, specializes in high-resolution, multibeam sonar wreck surveys. ADUS produces 4D interactive visualizations, which salvors can use to assess wrecks containing hazardous or noxious substances. Originally developed as an innovative technique meant primarily for marine archaeologists investigating wrecks for the UK government, ADUS has since discovered a more commercial market beyond heritage management.

Reality Meets the Bottom Line
Heightened awareness is a good thing. In this climate, however, it may not be enough. It may be obvious that a proactive approach to eliminating the threat of pollution is the right thing to do, but the best of intentions will miss the mark unless they are reinforced by real action. The salvage community is ready and – bolstered by existing and new technology – is well up to the task. With the ball squarely in the courts of the flag states, the first issue that needs to be resolved is funding. The salvors can take it from there.

On the Web:
Advanced Underwater Surveys Ltd
(ADUS): www.adus-uk.com
Bluefin Robotics Corporation: www.
bluefinrobotics.com
Environmental Research Consulting:
www.environmental-research.com