Unsafe  Tankers, World War II, and the Natural World

Despite the international focus--in some countries committed and in others nonexistent--on eliminating single-hulled tankers to prevent offshore oil spills, we are on the road to being blindsided by another source of fuel- and/or chemical-related ocean pollution: long-submerged WWII-era ships. But the oceans already withstand a mighty contribution from Mother Nature, herself.

Writing in the International Herald Tribune a week or so ago, Simon Cripps, director of the endangered seas program of the World Wide Fund for Nature--the Switzerland-based “Panda” environmental group--advised readers not to wait around for the next major oil spill to happen.

And while the world’s nations are directly addressing the need to prevent future catastrophic oil, fuel, and petrochemical spills both on land and offshore, they have little or no power to prevent a different kind of spill occurrence at sea, one that if combined could make most of those that came about during the last decade seem like--you should pardon the expression--a drop in the ocean.

But more about that later.

Last year’s spill from the sinking off Spain of the tanker Prestige, wrote Cripps, “caused at least as much damage as the Exxon Valdez disaster on Alaska’s coast in 1989.” Oil from the Prestige, he added--some 77,000 tonnes (about 510,000 barrels) of it, most of which leaked from its holding tanks--covered more than 1,860 miles (3,000 km) of the Western European coastline, killing 300,000 sea birds, and directly affecting the livelihoods of 30,000 persons in the fishery/shellfish industry. The damage, he also noted, will cost about $8 billion in clean-up, compensation, and lost revenue during the next 10 years.

The spill elicited a huge public outcry of “never again,” Cripps reminded us, adding that the European Union responded with new laws to toughen regulations on single-hull tankers (SHTs). Meanwhile, he continued, the International Maritime Organization (IMO), the UN agency for regulating international shipping, also responded by further accelerating its timetable for phasing out SHTs to match that of the U.S. (generally, the largest ones by 2005, the rest by 2010).

According to Cripps, however, such phase-outs aren’t exactly high-priority initiatives in most of the rest of the world, particularly with regard to ships registered in countries with minimal ship safety standards. As a result, wrote Cripps, vessels that carry so-called flags of convenience are “time bombs.”

He urged all nations with marine environments that are vulnerable to damage from international shipping activity to designate those areas as IMO-sanctioned “Particularly Sensitive Sea Areas (PSSAs).” What effect that would have on spills, however, is a matter of extreme conjecture.

Granted, the future movement of both bulk and liquid cargoes across oceans probably will be made much safer when--and if--double-hulled vessels will be required by all nations. But who would venture a guess as to when that time might be?

Nevertheless, nations concerned about the world environment, and particularly its marine component, are trying to do something to avoid the kinds of disastrous spills associated with tankers like the Torrey Canyon, the Exxon Valdez, and the Prestige, among countless other, smaller ones.

But, as if all that weren’t enough, a totally different single-hulled vessel problem exists today that could have enormous consequences around the world during the next few years--one that not many of us outside the maritime world would recognize immediately. It’s contained in the ships--many of them built to transport liquids like crude oil and its products, as well as chemicals of all kinds-- that have sunk around the world since such ocean trade began.

One might include here the ancient wooden vessels that moved bitumen and pitch, even olive oil, around the Mediterranean area since centuries before biblical times. And even ancient Asian seas had their oil and sulfur traders, as well. But we won’t here.

Roughly, ships with liquid cargo tanks didn’t get a real start until sometime in the late 19th century. Since then, however, a whole passel of them have ended up on the sea floor due to accidental (and not-so-accidental) sinkings, collisions, and storms, among other causes. Many went down with their liquid cargoes intact. Additionally, in more modern times, also at the bottom went the bunker fuel in those that used it to build steam or to drive internal combustion engines--a real double threat. Just how many of all these types of shipwrecks exist around the world is truly anyone’s guess.

Today, however, grim concern is afloat around the globe in government agencies, maritime offices, insurance company boardrooms, and even in nautical museums, about the shipping that went down as a result of the most recent great global war.

Those who understand and calculate corrosion in sunken vessels are telling anyone who’ll listen that if they think the tiny stream of oil that leaks from the fuel tanks of the battleship USS Arizona--sunk at Pearl Harbor almost 62 years ago--is scary, wait until the thousands of warships, cargo vessels, and tankers sunk in action between 1939 and 1945 start to leak their cargoes and fuel bunkers. Apparently, many have already begun.

Those who deal in such matters tell us that generally speaking, the single hulls of ships on both sides of the conflict that went down during the nearly six-year (September 1939 to August 1945) war are today wearing mighty thin, due mainly to simple corrosion of steel in salt water--a slow but markedly sure chemical reaction. This includes even the armor-plated warships that shellfire, torpedoes, bombs, and mines sent to Davey Jones’ Locker.

A brief survey of internet sources reveals that in spite of seemingly meticulous record-keeping by many nations, nobody knows for sure exactly how many ships on both sides were sunk during WWII. However, if the number of U.S. and U.K. flag vessels--a great many of them tankers--destroyed at sea during the war is any guide, the grand total would be stunning.

The misery and loss of human life on both sides in wartime ship sinkings is incalculable. In keeping with the subject at hand, however, trying to determine the actual number of ship sinkings themselves is mind-boggling enough.

According to the U.S. Maritime Service Veterans, an association based in Berkeley, CA, that keeps records on U.S. flag ship and crew losses during the war, about 1,790 American merchant vessels were lost at sea or at anchor by all causes during 1941-45.

Similarly, the Defense Dept. calculates that the U.S. Navy lost a total of about 660 ships of all types--including 11 aircraft carriers, 82 destroyers, and destroyer escorts, 21 troop transports, and 6 tankers, among other types--during the same period. Added together, the grand total is some 2,450 vessels.

The British, whose navy lost fewer, but perhaps more famous vessels, also list the United Kingdom’s wartime merchant ship sinkings. They say some 2,177 such vessels were sunk in wartime action during 1939-1945, of which a whopping 1,315 alone were victims of German submarines.

Suffice to say that if the number of ships lost by all the other Allies and by Japan, Germany, and Italy and other Axis powers were nearly equal to those of the U.S. and U.K., the number of ships lying at the bottom of the world’s oceans is likely to be on the order of 7,500 vessels.

And despite an undetermined number of tankers whose liquid cargoes and bunker fuel likely burned off as the stricken vessels slowly sank beneath the waves, it’s not difficult to imagine that thousands of those rusting hulks even now are actually leaking or nearing that point.

Of course, not all the wartime liquid cargoes were composed of crude oil; in fact, most of them probably were made up of lighter refined products and hence, may have dissipated somewhat harmlessly over the years. However, the heavier ends, like diesel oil and other bunker fuels, might still pack an environmental wallop if leaking in much greater volumes than, say, that currently oozing from the Arizona, which measures nearly half a gallon (2 liters) a day. Eventually, however, decks and bulkheads of such ships will collapse and the oil will spill in much greater volumes.

It’s a sure bet that any upcoming higher-volume leaks from sunken WWII-era vessels will occur gradually. Corrosion rates differ with metallurgical composition and the saline content of the water surrounding it. However, companies with expertise in removing liquid cargoes from sunken shipwrecks already exist, and more are being formed, just to have the capability of handling the abovementioned types of spills. Whether the will exists to tackle them is, once again, anybody’s guess.

However, the leak rate from sunken vessels probably is still minor when compared to the oil spill pollution contributed by other sources.

In recent remarks before a meeting of the International Oil Spill Conference (Apr. 7, 2003), Adm. James D. Watkins, USN (Ret.), former chief of naval operations, told attendees that while tanker sinkings have been a significant source of oil spill contamination in U.S.-controlled waters during the past decade, offshore oil drilling and production equipment and pipeline accidents have contributed only a fraction to that total.

“…[E]vidence is that, by far, most of the ocean pollution from petroleum comes from natural seeps,” Watkins noted, “some 61.5% or about 1.12 million barrels per year.” The next highest source is us humans, who contribute oil by consuming it in our land-based activities, which pollute through run-off or discharges into rivers and streams and, hence, into the oceans.

So, apparently, even as we try not to fool with Mother Nature, when it comes to oil spills into the world’s oceans, she still has the last laugh.

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