The California Assembly on June 3 unanimously passed a bill authored by Assemblyman Sam Blakeslee, which aims to kickstart an assessment of an underwater threat: the oil tanker Montebello, which sits less than seven miles off the coast of Cambria, just south of the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary and 900 feet below the ocean surface. A Japanese submarine torpedoed the ship 68 years ago, two weeks and two days after the Dec. 7 attack on Pearl Harbor, sending it to the seafloor, likely with its more than 3 million gallons of oil aboard.
“We cannot wait for a release of oil before we act,” Blakeslee said in a press release. “We must be proactive and act to prevent the threat of a disaster, not simply wait until disaster occurs.”
Under current state rules, an actual release of oil must occur to trigger the “imminent threat” criteria required to mobilize state resources. The bill would lower the threshold so the state can take immediate measures to head off a potential environmental disaster.
“Bear in mind the blown-out oil platform in the [Gulf of Mexico] is 50 miles offshore and we can see the devastation to the coast that’s caused,” Christine Robertson, a spokesperson for Blakeslee, explained. “The Montebello’s only six miles out with potentially millions of gallons of oil, so people should appreciate how grave the threat could be.”
In early January 2009, Blakeslee initiated a partnership with the California Department of Fish and Game Office of Spill Prevention and Response, requesting OSPR coordinate with other agencies to determine the likelihood the eight-decade-old ship would leak its cargo and the potential effects if it does. A task force including OSPR, the federal Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the U.S. Coast Guard, the National Park Service, Cal-Trans, the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute, and the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary formed to research the vessel and its cargo.
The Senate likely will consider the legislation later this month. If it passes and the governor signs it, dives to the wreck could begin in September. Blakeslee cited a July 17, 2008 article in New Times, “Taking watch on the Montebello,” as the impetus for his efforts.