A massive, multi-agency effort is underway to figure out just how much oil lingers in the hull of the long-sunken World War II-era tanker, the S.S. Montebello, which has rested for more than 70 years on the seafloor approximately seven miles off the Cambria coast.
On Oct. 11, the United States Coast Guard held a press conference outside its Morro Bay station to outline the project and describe how officials will determine what needs to be done with the vessel.
The effort—being undertaken by the Coast Guard, the California Department of Fish and Game’s Office of Spill Prevention and Response, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Caltrans, state Sen. Sam Blakeslee’s office, and the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute—is the first of its kind in California.
In order to complete the mission, the Coast Guard and Fish and Game hired Seattle-based company Global Diving & Salvage to operate unmanned remote-operated vehicles (ROVs) to explore the sunken vessel’s hull.
According to Kerry Walsh, project manager for Global Diving & Salvage, crews began work on a Coast Guard vessel anchored at the Montebello site on Oct. 10. Walsh said the mission will likely last 10 days.
The project involves sending ROVs to conduct “hot tapping,” a process of drilling small holes into the 30 cargo and oil tanks, taking samples of the tanks’ contents, and resealing the tanks to prevent possible leakage, Walsh said.
Though Global Salvage has completed similar projects in the past, Walsh said, the depth at which the Montebello rests—approximately 900 feet below the ocean’s surface—makes this project unprecedented.
“It’s just cool and exciting,” he said of the effort.
The ROVs will also conduct echo tests to determine the integrity of the hull, as well as tests of sediment surrounding the tanker.
Money for the project comes from the federal Oil Spill Liability trust fund.
Just days before Christmas in 1941, and less than two weeks after the Pearl Harbor attack, the S.S. Montebello was hit by a Japanese torpedo while the tanker was on its way to British Columbia.
The government has conducted a number of dive surveys in the past, none of which found any signs of leakage. By all estimates, the hull is still intact. But the million-dollar question is: For how long? And what would the consequences be if it leaks?
At the time of its sinking, the Montebello held an estimated 3 million gallons of crude oil.
Blakeslee, whose legislation established the Montebello Assessment Task Force, said he was glad to see the effort underway.
“In the aftermath of the Deepwater Horizon [in which an offshore drilling rig owned by BP exploded in the Gulf of Mexico], we need to stand up and be proactive when it comes to possibly catastrophic situations like this,” Blakeslee told New Times.