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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Leaky Ships

Air Date: Week of

Steve Curwood spoke with Mike Jordan of the Wilmington based Atlantic Foundation who says ships such as one called the Esso Nashville which was torpedoed by German U-boats during World War Two remain off our coasts leaking their crude oil and other contaminating contents.


CURWOOD: On the rainy night of March 21, 1942, the oil tanker Esso Nashville was making its way up the North Carolina coast, its cargo, 1,000,000 gallons of crude oil destined for the defense of the British Isles. The ship was blacked out to avoid detection by German submarines operating in the area. But just past midnight, the captain of U-boat 124 found his prey. He fired two torpedoes. One struck the Esso Nashville amidships, with a dull thud, but did not explode. The next torpedo did. The vessel caught fire, broke in two, and the part carrying the oil sank to the bottom, 45 miles northeast of Wilmington, North Carolina. And it still sits there today, decaying in 110 feet of cold Atlantic water, crude oil slowly seeping out, each hurricane bringing the chance that a massive spill could occur. Mike Jordan of the Wilmington-based Atlantic Foundation says the Esso Nashville is not the only vessel with a hazardous cargo that lies off the East Coast.

JORDAN: We have over 500 ships, Steve, between the tip of Florida and Maine, World War II vessels that were sank by the Germans. The Germans were tremendously active during the early part of the war, and particularly in the early part of 1942.

CURWOOD: What was in the boats? What kind of cargo do these ships have?

JORDAN: Yeah, the tankers, of course, were carrying liquid cargoes, so they would be carrying oil, but all the way from oil to highly refined hydrocarbons like aviation fuels. Other tankers would have been carrying liquids like toluene and benzene, and these cargoes, if they stayed intact, would also be dangerous, because these are carcinogens, of course. The other half of the ships, about half of them were freighters. Some of those carrying cargoes, when you look at the manifests, they are a little bit disturbing, because it's things like chromium ore and beryl, which is where beryllium comes from, asbestos, and mercury compounds, so all of these are chemicals, and materials that are at least of interest.

CURWOOD: So these ships, and there are 500 of them or so, some with oil and other chemicals, pose a present environmental danger.

JORDAN: Certainly the fact that we have oil events washing up on North Carolina beaches indicates that there is a danger, and we are virtually certain that that's one of the tankers. So the answer to your question at that end of the scale is, yes.

CURWOOD: I wonder if you could tell us in some detail, what happened to the Carolina coast in May, in June of 1995, with regard to oil from the boat offshore.

JORDAN: Yeah. Beginning in the early spring of the year, we began to experience tar balls washing up on the beaches. Now, the tar balls take a few days in the sea to consolidate and to become hardened, so the Coast Guard laboratories could tell just by looking at those, one, that all of the tar balls that washed up along about 200 miles of beaches, all came from the same source of oil, and secondly, that they had been in the sea approximately 2 to 3 weeks when they washed up. So, having that data tells us pretty clearly that they're coming from a stationary source that's remaining in place out there, and we do think it was one of the tankers, Steve.

CURWOOD: Now, to avoid further contamination of the coastline, what do you think we should do with these ships and what they have in them?

JORDAN: Well, probably what we should do will have to remain to be determined after we see how much is in them and what circumstances, but the thinking of the Coast Guard at this time, and the thinking of the Atlantic Foundation, is that any ships that present an immanent danger, that have large amounts of hydrocarbons in them, will probably have to be remediated, which means that either a private or a government organization will need to go out, will essentially punch a hole in the side of these ships. They tell me that it would probably require pumping live steam through the hydrocarbons to loosen them up and reduce the viscosity, and then water would be injected into either the base of the tankers or the base of however they're oriented, and the oil pumped out the top.

CURWOOD: But what about a salvage operation going wrong? If you go down there and you punch a hole in one of these boats and start pumping the oil, you could set off something that could erupt into a massive spill.

JORDAN: That's the danger, but just the fact that this many hydrocarbons are out there, the fact that we know what massive oil spill do, not only to the environment, but to the tourist industry, that's so important in North Carolina, they really can't be ignored environmentally.

CURWOOD: So here we are, 52 years after World War II is over, and we're still dealing with the consequences of that war in a very tangible way.

JORDAN: We are dealing with it, and there's probably some sort of a philosophical lesson there, and maybe it's even clearer than that, we don't have to strain for it, I mean, the massive violence that humankind is capable of, the degree to which we we're capable of extending it, it isn't just over. I mean, it does have consequences. It's like leaving a bruise, and all of these haven't healed up yet.

CURWOOD: Mike Jordan is head of the Atlantic Foundation, which is based in Wilmington, North Carolina. Thanks, Mike, for taking this time with us.

JORDAN: Thanks for having us on, Steve.



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