If it leaks, a sunken tanker holding 3 million gallons of oil could mean a Central Coast disaster.
Thursday, August 7, 2008
It was two days before Christmas in 1941, barely two weeks after the attack on Pearl Harbor. The crew of the Montebello knew there were Japanese submarines off the California coast, but they voted to ship out on the oil tanker anyway.
They’d been out only hours when Richard Quincy, then a 22-year-old ordinary seaman, first spotted the sub. The Montebello was motoring in rough seas, lights out, about six miles off Cambria. Quincy saw a flash in the tanker’s wake and called to his chief mate to point it out. They lost sight of the vessel, but before long Quincy spotted it again off the ship’s starboard side.
“I said, ‘There it is!’ I pointed just as the torpedo hit,” Quincy says.
The missile rocked the tanker, and it quickly began to sink.
Quincy and the other crewmen scrambled into four lifeboats, using a hatchet to cut their tethering ropes as gunfire from the sub’s deck guns sailed over their heads. Everyone survived, and Quincy recalls watching the boat stand straight up out of the water just before it went under.
Quincy, now 89 and living in Danville, recalls the events of that night with stunning detail.
During the war and for years afterward, Quincy says, the military downplayed or denied the extent of Japanese intrusions into Pacific coast waters.
Many people called him a liar, Quincy says, noting that it was commonly believed the Japanese didn’t sink any ships off the California coast. Eventually, he stopped telling his story.
THINGS ARE DIFFERENT NOW
These days, nobody challenges the story, and plenty of people are interested in hearing about the ship.
Here’s why: There are growing concerns that the Montebello could offer a second adventure/disaster story. But this one would be of an ecological nature.
Researchers are confident the tanker still entombs its cargo, more than 3 million gallons of Santa Maria crude loaded from the Union Oil facility in Avila Beach. The wreck sits just outside the boundary of the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary.
“We are paying attention to it,” says Michele Roest, a sanctuary researcher based in San Simeon, noting that the Montebello is on the list of shipwrecks the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration deems worth tracking.
She says NOAA views the wreck with “calculated concern” because a spill almost certainly would impact the bordering sanctuary.
“We have a mandate to check on the natural and cultural resources of the sanctuary,” Roest says. “We are looking at this as part of our maritime history, and because of the impact that it [could have] on our natural resources.
“You look out for your neighbors. You keep an eye on it because it is in the neighborhood.”
By the reckoning of Gary Talley, a veteran who first learned about the Montebello in 2002, even if the hull begins collapsing just one hold at a time, that will still mean tens of thousands of gallons of crude heading toward the Central Coast.
Jack Hunter, a marine archaeologist with the state Department of Transportation, helped organize the first dive to explore the wreck, in 1996, and took part in the second and most recent dive expedition, in 2003.
The difference in what he saw, he says, was startling.
In 1996 the ship, sitting on a bed of sand 900 feet below, seemed intact, with its paint still looking fresh. In 2003, he says, “there was a very large rust spot in the middle of each tank. She was finally starting to show her age.”
Quincy notes an old sailor’s saying: “Rust never quits. Eventually it’s going to go.” When it does, he says, “that’s going to be a real mess.”
LOOKING FOR A FIX
If Quincy was witness to the Montebello’s life and death, Talley intends to watch over the ship’s afterlife. Ideally, Talley says, he’ll be able to convince the U.S. Navy to arrange to pump out the ship’s oil before it spills and ruins the coastline he loves. At the very least, Talley hopes to preside over installation of a way to monitor the vessel so there’ll be a warning if it begins to leak.
Talley, of Cambria, was a safety engineer and quality assurance manager at Hughes Aircraft Radar Systems Group; before that, the engineer helped test the lunar lander for NASA.
He’s convinced there’s a coming ecological disaster, but that nobody seems to be doing anything about it.
That’s not completely the case.
Several years ago, the state did a sunken-vessel survey and identified 13 vessels as “high risk”; ones that have the potential to affect the California coastline. The Montebello was among them.
“We monitor them,” says Carol Singleton, spokeswoman for the state Department of Fish and Game’s Office of Spill Prevention and Response. “We know where they are, we know the telltale signs to look for” if oil starts leaking. She also notes that there are response agencies all along the coast set to act.
Her agency, NOAA and the Coast Guard all work together, she says, and have plans in place for all kinds of scenarios.
After learning about the Montebello, it didn’t take Talley long to become an expert on the wreck. With his background, he says, he quickly grew concerned about what might happen to the coastline if the Montebello’s hull fails.
He began speaking to groups of military officers and writing letters to officials in hopes of generating interest about the wreck and its potential.
“People had better be scared of it,” he says, “because if even one of the eight compartments gets loose, we’re in a lot of trouble.”
“The worst possible scenario,” he says, “would be if the deck falls apart, leaving a gaping hole above the oil. A huge mass would escape all at once and ascend. Remember, we’re looking at a compartment that is 50 feet in length, 58 feet wide at the beam, and 32 feet deep. That is a globule of crude as big as a house. If it all comes out quickly and ascends quickly, we will have a disaster on our hands.”
If winds are unusual, and come from the south, the entire spill would head toward the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary.
But, by the former scuba instructor and sailor’s measure, the prevailing currents would carry the oil south, to Moonstone Beach, Morro Bay and Avila Beach, all in San Luis Obispo County. If waters are calm, perhaps the U.S. Coast Guard could respond with log booms and skimmers.
Spokesman Prentice Danner, petty officer second class, says it’s part of the Coast Guard’s job to respond to pollution on navigable waterways.
But he says no measures addressing the Montebello currently are under way, noting there are “countless” shipwrecks, and dealing with them alone would be a full-time job.
If a leak occurs during a storm, Talley is concerned it could drift, undetected, straight toward the Diablo Canyon Nuclear Power Plant’s saltwater intake valves.
It’s that possibility that led Talley to raise the issue with Pacific Gas & Electric Co., which owns and operates the plant. Talley toured the plant and wrote a letter to company officials to share his concerns. An engineer responded at a recent meeting of the Diablo Canyon Independent Safety Concern. While the engineer clearly had become versed in the publicly available information about the tanker, his report didn’t mention any corrective actions the company planned.
“I had hoped to hear they would be installing oil-slick detectors offshore from their saltwater intakes, or at least give some thought to this,” Talley says. “No such luck.”
It isn’t the first time Talley has been disappointed in a lack of official attention to the Montebello.
As he wrote in a 2004 letter to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (he never received an answer): “Our time left until this disaster can be measured in the few millimeters of un-rusted hull above the oil in the Montebello.”
The governor’s office says it has no record of the letter.
Lisa Page, spokeswoman for Schwarzenegger, says the governor “believes we must do everything we can to protect and preserve California’s natural resources for future generations.”
To that end, the administration is working to enhance the state’s oil-spill prevention and response capabilities. A number of measures the governor has proposed are working their way through the state Legislature, Page says, including bills to speed response times to incidents and improve accuracy in the notification process in case of a spill.
On July 29, Schwarzenegger, Oregon Gov. Ted Kulongoski and Washington Gov. Christine Gregoire announced a joint effort to preserve the health of the Pacific Ocean.
The three states plan to work together to, among other things, advocate for stricter oceangoing vessel emission standards, explore the feasibility of offshore alternative ocean energy development and prevent and respond to offshore oil spills.
Talley is quick to remind anyone who needs it that the 1989 spill of the Exxon Valdez tanker– which affected 1,100 miles of Alaska’s coastline, killed hundreds of thousands of birds, thousands of otters, and has continued to impact fishing in the area– involved about 10.8 million gallons.
Much of the most dramatic “What if?” stories involving the Montebello are based on a worst-case scenario, Talley acknowledges. Yet the less-dramatic leak scenarios don’t offer much comfort.
A TRIP TO THE BOTTOM OF THE OCEAN
Roest, the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary researcher, was on the most recent dive to examine the ship five years ago.
The Montebello, she says, was covered in fishing nets and had become a haven for sea life ranging from lingcod to white sea anemones to rockfish. It was pitch black, so even with spotlights, she was able to only see a small part of the tanker at a time.
“On the one hand, it seems like it’s in fairly stable condition,” she says. “On the other hand, the materials the vessel was composed of have been gradually decaying for 60 years. Just the fact that it’s been there for so long means it’s a concern.”
The ship did not look rusty, she says, and the cargo holds were intact. Unless there is a rupture, she says, there would be no place for the oil to go.
No more dives are planned right now, she says, but that situation could always change.
The good news, such as it is, is that the oil was so viscous that it had to be thinned by heating to be pumped into the tanker, and even then large amounts remained behind, according to information supplied to researchers by Quincy, who manned the pump valves in 1941.
Roest estimates the temperature at about 40 degrees down below, and says the expectation is that the oil is “a fairly semi-solid, inert block encased in a steel hull.”
But that doesn’t mean it won’t rise; researchers say the oil remains more buoyant than the surrounding water. And if it were to reach the surface, it almost certainly would heat up and spread.
Talley looks at things more starkly. He notes that the Montebello was built in 1921, just nine years after the Titanic.
“We all know the terrible condition the Titanic hull is in, five miles down,” he says, so how could the Montebello hope to be faring much better?
There are more relevant examples.
One ship, the S.S. Jacob Luckenbach, sank 17 miles outside the Golden Gate. The submerged wreck was leaking oil, which was drifting onto the coastline. In 2002, a private company used a “hot tap”– steam is inserted to warm up the oil before a pump then sucks it out– to drain 460 tons of viscous oil out of the Luckenbach’s compartments. The technology has been used for several other wrecks, as well, although experts say the Montebello’s depth, and its many holds, would present challenges.
Hunter, the marine archaeologist, notes one of those would be simply getting insurance to cover the possibility that the attempted extraction would itself lead to a spill.
Still, oil is valuable these days. If it’s usable, at $119 a barrel, the ship’s about 72,000 barrels would fetch almost $8.6 million. Talley hopes such a price would at least offset, if not fund outright, a pumping mission.
In the meantime, Talley hopes to raise money for NOAA to anchor a barge over the wreck that would be stocked with an oil slick-detection system. If a leak were detected, an alarm would sound on an onshore receiver.
“This doesn’t take the place of pumping all the oil out of the ship,” he says, “but it is a start.”
To Hunter, that idea sounds like overkill. He says simpler methods could detect the presence of bacteria that grow around marine oil leaks. Others have suggested the hull could be bored with small holes so the oil theoretically would leak out a little at a time.
Whatever might be done, no firm decision has been made.
“The Montebello is ticking out there,” Hunter says.