Blakeslee wants danger of sunken tanker assessed

Photo by Robert Schwemmer

Assemblyman Sam Blakeslee has formed a team that will assess the environmental dangers posed by the Montebello, an oil tanker torpedoed by a Japanese submarine off the coast of Cambria in the early days of World War II.

Experts from various state and federal agencies will assess the state of the wreck, determine what additional research needs to be done and make recommendations about the next steps to take. The assessment report should be released this summer.

“We don’t want to wait until there is a problem before we start answering those questions,” said Blakeslee, R-San Luis Obispo, who represents San Luis Obispo and northern Santa Barbara counties.

The ship contained more than 3 million gallons of Santa Maria crude oil when it sank. Maritime experts believe the wreck is not leaking oil but will eventually deteriorate to the point where a spill is possible, if not inevitable.The ship’s hull could either fail catastrophically and release all the oil at once, or, more likely, pipes and valves associated with the tanks could break and develop a slow, chronic leak.

In any case, the oil would pose a grave threat to the environment, said Melissa Boggs, a state oil spill environmental scientist. These include polluting beaches, oiling wildlife, hurting tourism and disrupting the operation of Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant.

Although the wreck is nearly 70 years old and sits in cold, 900-foot-deep water, its oil is still a threat, the experts say. It likely has the consistency of peanut butter but is still buoyant. If released, the oil would float to the surface, warm up and form a slick.

The team has an initial budget of $100,000 from the state’s Office of Oil Spill Prevention and Response. Part of this money will be spent on sonar scans of the wreck to learn more about its state and surrounding ocean floor.

Some of the first questions researchers will try to answer are how much oil is still in the wreck and how imminent is the danger of a spill. The torpedo struck the ship forward of its oil tanks and survivors saw no sign of an oil spill, so the ship presumably went to the bottom with its entire oil load intact.

One option would be to send down divers who would drill into one of the wreck’s tanks, take a sample and plug the hole. Another would be to more closely monitor the wreck from the surface to immediately detect any spilled oil.

History has shown that wrecks like the Montebello pose a real danger, said Coast Guard Capt. John Caplis. For a decade, researchers were puzzled by repeated discoveries of oiled seabirds near San Francisco.

The oil was eventually traced to the wreck of the Jacob Luckenbach, an oil tanker that sank near the Farallon Islands in the 1950s. The remaining oil was pumped from the wreck in 2002.

If the Montebello begins to leak, the Coast Guard could decide to pump out the oil or find some way to seal the wreck. Whatever they do would be expensive.

Offloading the Luckenbach’s oil cost $20 million. It was in much shallower water (175 feet down) and had far less oil on board than the Montebello, Caplis said.

Both the federal and state governments have oil spill response funds officials could tap into. However, funding would not become available unless the threat was considered imminent.

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