A sunken oil tanker hit by a Japanese submarine torpedoes nearly 70 years ago, may be a ticking oil spill time bomb off the central coast of California.
The “Montebello” sits in 900 feet of water about six miles from Cambria at the southern edge of the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary. Most of its original cargo – 4.1 million gallons of crude oil – is intact.
The 440-foot tanker is one of the hundreds of sunken ships off the west coast. It sunk on Dec. 23, 1941, just 16 days after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. It had just departed Port San Luis, where it was loaded with 75,000 barrels of Santa Maria crude. It was heading north to Vancouver, British Columbia before it was sunk 170 miles south of San Francisco.
Two formal expeditions have dived on the ship, the first in 1996 and the most recent in 2003. Now covered in bioluminescent anemone and draped with fishing nets, divers said they found the hull in decent shape in the latest dive. According to one theory, the tanks are still in one piece partly because pressure from the semisolid oil on the inside is keeping the hull from leaking.
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High cost of environmental damage
Why should we care about these sunken tankers? Besides the obvious answer of ruptured tanker holds leaking oil, we’re concerned about oil causing injury to birds unlucky enough to find themselves in the middle of a slick.
For years, IBRRC took in thousands of oiled birds picked up from a “mystery spill” that hit beaches from Ocean Beach in San Francisco south to Half Moon Bay. Thousands of Common Murres were oiled during this chronic oiling. The oil was finally linked to the S.S. Jacob Luckenbach that sunk in 1953 approximately 17 miles southwest of the Golden Gate Bridge off of San Francisco. The “fingerprint” of this oil matches oil taken from tarballs and oiled feathers from past “mystery spills” in 1992-93, 1997-98, 1999, and Feb. 2001.
The Luckenbach was cleaned of its leaking oil in the spring of 2002. The Coast Guard and the Office of Oil Spill Prevention and Response (OSPR) managed a contractor that pumped out an estimated 300,000 gallons of oil at a cost of nearly $20 million. The job was completed in October 2002.
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Monterey County Weekly