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A Fleet Of Rusting, Leaking Wartime Wrecks Threaten The Pacific

 

By David Fickling

The Observer - UK

 

For the tourists who made 50,000 dives a year in New Caledonia's crystalline waters, the Ever Prosperity was simply an intriguing wreck off the exquisite, white-sand Amedee islet.

 

The island, a short boat ride from the capital, Noumea, is the cradle of the local diving industry and a prime tourist destination.

 

But a fortnight ago the Ever Prosperity's corroding hull threatened this jewel of the French Pacific territory when it released an eight-square-mile oil slick just a few hundred meters from Amedee's beaches.

 

The situation was serious enough for the navy to dispatch a small flotilla of boats to surround the oil with a 2,000-foot barrage and break up the slick. Through a miraculous combination of weather conditions, it broke up without seriously affecting the shoreline.

 

But the incident has concentrated minds on a situation threatening the entire Pacific. The Ever Prosperity was an ore carrier which had most of its tanks pumped dry after it sank in 1970, leaving only a small supply of starter fuel to threaten New Caledonia's reefs.

 

Regional environment experts say a far greater threat to the region is posed by the hundreds of wrecks left over from the Second World War, many of which sank with full tanks that have never been pumped.

 

'These things have been corroding for 60 years, as well as being exposed to catastrophic events like cyclones,' says Sefanaia Nawadra of the UN's South Pacific regional environment program. 'It's a bit like a game of chance: the odds of a leak are stacking up more and more.'

 

The problem was brought to the fore in 2000, when residents of Ulithi atoll in the Federated States of Micronesia (FSM) noticed oil slicks in their lagoon after a cyclone.

 

More than 300 gallons a day were pouring from the wreck of the USS Mississinewa, an oil tanker sunk by a Japanese suicide submarine in 1944. The remote atoll's 700 residents were unable to swim or fish and a state of emergency was declared.

 

Nawadra says there are records of 3,800 wrecks scattered about the Pacific. Nearly 400 need further assessment. Many are icons of eco-tourism, thanks to the coral that has engulfed them since 1945. Japanese tourists who dive to explore the wrecks of Chuuk lagoon represent one of the biggest earners for the FSM's economy.

 

Draining the oil from the Mississinewa cost $4 million, and many Pacific wrecks would present far greater difficulties. While the Mississinewa is just 40 meters below the surface, the 550,000 tons of war shipwrecks in the Solomon Islands were sunk in 100 to 150 meters. 'The costs go up exponentially the deeper you go,' says Nawadra.

 

Adding to the problem is that the wrecks remain the property of the US and Japanese governments and cannot be tampered with by locals because to do so could desecrate a war grave.

 

The Mississinewa was not the first wreck to start leaking oil. Gradvin Aisek, manager of the Blue Lagoon dive shop in the FSM's Chuuk lagoon, says that the Kiyoshi Maru used to regularly cause minor slicks in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

 

His parents remembered the slicks that followed an American bombing of the Japanese fleet in Chuuk. 'After the bombing, for two, three or five days the lagoon was totally oily. It took three or four months to clear all the oil out,' he said.

 

As with the Mississinewa, funds to clean up the Pacific's wrecks are unlikely to be made available until a slick occurs. The FSM's environmental health coordinator, Moses Bretrick, says he knows of at least two shipwrecks which could cause slicks, but doubts that anything will be done in the short term.

 

'That's the concern; that people won't do anything until oil starts to come out. It may probably be due to the magnitude of the damage. If the damage is great, we may have urgent people coming to help contain it, but otherwise it might take time.'

 

Russell Maharaj, of the South Pacific regional organization Sopac, says that the Solomon Islands' problems are particularly acute. 'There are several vessels in that area which actually leak oil,' he said. 'You see slicks when the tide falls and there's not so much rain runoff. A lot of people have reported it.'

 

Allan Kemakeza, the Solomons' Prime Minister, agrees: 'We think it will be a disaster very shortly. The Second World War wreckage in the Solomon Islands is so huge - 200-plus ships were sunk here during the war. It will be a disastrous issue if the oil leaks.'

 

Guardian Unlimited Guardian Newspapers Limited 2004 http://www.guardian.co.uk/conservation/story/0,13369,1189897,00.html
















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