Editorial: Montebello study a wise decision

At a time when California’s economy continues to sink, it might seem frivolous to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to study the condition of a wrecked oil tanker on the ocean floor.

Ignoring the problem, though, could result in a disastrous oil spill — and that would prove far more costly in the long run.

That’s why we support Assemblyman Sam Blakeslee’s decision to pull together a task force of scientists and other government experts to study the wreckage.

Using sonar scans and other assessment tools, the task force will perform an initial evaluation of the Montebello — the tanker torpedoed off the coast of Cambria during World War II. The report, due out this summer, also will recommend what should be done next, including any additional tests that may be needed.

Ultimately, the investigation should tell us whether the oil — if oil is indeed still present — poses a danger to the environment and, if so, what should be done about it.

To fund the initial assessment, $100,000 in oil spill prevention funds will be used.

If more costly work is needed, additional state and federal funding for environmental cleanups can be tapped, though it’s too soon to say whether that funding would stretch far enough to cover an expensive removal operation.

Also, much of the funding is available only if the wreckage poses an imminent threat to the environment.

We hope that’s not the case, but it’s better to find out what’s in store than to sit back and wait for spills to occur.

We’ve already glimpsed the consequences of what could occur here in the Bay Area, where the SS Jacob Luckenbach, an oil tanker, sank in 1953. The tanker was later found to be the source of a series of “mystery” oil spills that killed more than 50,000 birds and other marine life.

It ultimately cost $20 million to remove 100,000 gallons of remaining oil from the tanker. An additional $20 million was allocated to habitat restoration projects to compensate for loss of wildlife and other environmental damage.

The potential environmental damage from oil releases from the Montebello could be far greater, given that a much larger amount of oil was on board.

While there is no evidence that any spills from the Montebello have occurred so far, it’s too dangerous to gamble that nothing will happen in the future.

We commend Blakeslee for being proactive and taking advantage of funding specifically allocated to oil spill prevention, and we look forward to the findings and recommendations of the task force.