A 70-year-old wound still bleeds oil

| 01 May 2012 | 01:53

“Is it still coming up?” asked a man in a Hawaiian shirt stretched taught over a potbelly. He was gesturing toward the leeward side of the memorial. “Bathtubs of it were coming up when I was here eight years ago.”

He and I were among a horde of American and Japanese tourists looking down at the remains of the U.S.S. Arizona, one of the three battleships that had not been raised and re-fitted after the Japanese attack.

An army veteran, his regimen’s tattoo on his wrinkled forearm, was aboard the memorial to answer questions. “Yup, it’s comin’ up,” he answered. “About eight quarts a day, I think, sometimes more, sometimes less.”

I looked overboard to see what they were talking about. Near what was left of a rusted cylinder that used to be a gun turret, the turquoise water was coated with that unmistakable rainbow shimmer. Fish swam underneath the oil slick, unconcerned.

I’d steeled myself for a history lesson today. I did not expect to witness live action.

It turns out the U.S.S. Arizona has been bleeding oil since it was destroyed by two 500-pound bombs 70 years ago. The first Navy diver to penetrate the Arizona, a month after it was bombed, described “the dense floating mass of oil blotted out all the daylight. I was submerged in total blackness,” Metalsmith 1st Class Edward Raymer wrote in his memoir, Descent into Darkness.

But the half-million gallons that were onboard when it went down are still far from bled out. The oil has become part of the ecosystem: the shells encrusting the ship’s metal hull are partly composed of oil, according to Timothy Foeche, deputy chief of the metallurgy division at the National Institute of Standards and Technology, a division of the federal government. Foeche studied the ship for two years, until the money ran out.

“It’s sitting and rusting, and for the moment they’re not going to do anything to reinforce it that I know of,” said Foeche. “It should be fine for the next couple decades. It’s a battleship, so it’s designed to take a lot of damage. It’s just kind of slumping under its own weight.”

Eventually, inevitably, the ship will turn back into an iron ore deposit. When it does, up will come the oil contained inside its hull.

“This oil, a potentially serious environmental hazard, is contained within the corroding hull. Catastrophic oil release, although by all indications not imminent, is ultimately inevitable,” the National Park Service website explains. If the oil comes out at once, it could spew as much as the BP spill released per day into the Gulf of Mexico.

It seemed extraordinary that this time bomb was ticking away in full view, but passing basically unnoticed. Wasn’t it strange that the plan was simply to let the ship corrode until it collapsed under its own weight?

It’s utterly ordinary, it turns out. The U.S.S. Arizona is one of at least 8,569 wrecked ships that sit rusting on the seafloor, according to a 2005 report by Dagmar Schmidt Etkin, an environmental consultant group in Cortlandt Manor, NY. More than three-quarters of them are World War II-era. That means they’re just a couple decades behind the Titanic, which scientists recently predicted would be a rust stain on the bed of the Atlantic within 20 years.

The Northeast Atlantic holds 25 percent of the world’s potentially polluting wrecks—remnants of the intense maritime attacks between the Germans and Allied Forces during World War II.

We’re aware of the danger. After mystery oil spills in the 1990s killed 50,000 seabirds and several sea otters off the California coast, the culprit was discovered to be the wreck of a freighter that collided with another ship on its way to Korea during the Korean War.

Look at a map that plots the locations of shipwrecks, and the dots “just absolutely cover the east coast, even up Mississippi River,” said Foeche. “Some are more worrisome than others. Some were carrying bombs, some cheese.”