Please ensure Javascript is enabled for purposes of website accessibility

NOAA may find little oil in sunken ships, diver says

OCEAN CITY — Veteran scuba diver Ted Green says he isn’t worried about sunken vessels near area beaches that are under scrutiny for potential oil leaks. The oil they once held, he says, is long gone — already dispersed into the sea.

You would be very hard-pressed to find a shipwreck off the coast of Delmarva that has any appreciable amount of oil left in it, said Green, the owner of OC Diver.

If he’s right, he’s ahead of the curve now that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is combing through documents about known shipwrecks to decide which ones might be at risk for leaking oil.

NOAA is working to determine which of the more than 30,000 coastal shipwrecks they’ve identified contain fuels that could cause ecological damage, if they spring a leak. Lisa Symons, NOAA damage assessment and resource protection coordinator, pointed out five submerged vessels offshore of the resort the administration is assessing.

The closest is the Marine Electric, a coal carrier that sank in 1983. Another is the India Arrow, a tanker that had been carrying a cargo of 88,369 barrels of diesel fuel during World War II when it was torpedoed by a German U-boat and sank about 20 miles southeast of Cape May, N.J.

Green routinely dives both locations and said to the best of his knowledge, the vast majority of oil has been gone from both vessels for years, maybe even decades. The India Arrow would have posed a greater ecological threat due to the nature of its cargo, but Green’s travels through the inside of the boat have indicated to him that the holds that used to contain oil have all emptied out, meaning any damage done from its fuel cargo has long since transpired.

“The boats that are carrying fuel are going to carry more potential for hazard than the others whose only fuel on board was what they were actually using for transportation,” Green said. “The damage from those boats is still significant, but definitely not the same as a tanker full of oil.”

Green said that even if a ship is leaking oil, it wouldn’t pose any kind of threat to a scuba diver. There are a number of ships along the East Coast he said do still contain oil, and leak it in small droplets that quickly dissipate in the water and cause “fairly minimal” environmental damage.

It’s not clear whether the submerged vessels will pose an environmental threat or not, according to Symons. She said she doesn’t know if oil is still onboard any of the vessels. The agency hopes to conclude its investigation by the end of this year, she said, and at that point will turn its findings over to various Coast Guard bureaus.

The Coast Guard will then decide if measures should be taken to further investigate the wrecks and possibly extract the fuels to prevent future leaks. The vessels in question will most likely fall under the jurisdiction of the Fifth Coast Guard District, based in Portsmouth, Va.

“It’s still very much in the assessment process,” Symons said of the project. “We’re trying to be as smart as we can about working through this and providing the Coast Guard with the most accurate risk assessment we can.”

Some of the vessels may not have broken apart completely and may still have intact fuel tanks that could begin to leak as corrosion progresses, according to Symons.

The ships assessed by the NOAA were sunk after 1907 and meet specific criteria for size and amount of fuel on board, Symons said. Many of them were sunk by U-boats during World War II.

“That’s not to say they’re the only ones, because there are smaller boats with not as significant amounts of fuel on board that were ruled out,” Symons said.

There are many sunken boats off Ocean City’s coast, but Monty Hawkins of the Maryland Artificial Reef Committee agrees with Green that the waters surrounding the resort will dodge any problems from sunken vessel oil leaks.

Many of the sunken ships were put there intentionally as part of the artificial reef program, like the USS Arthur W. Radford, which is slated to be sunk off the coast sometime this year.

“When we sink a ship, it has to be very clean, and the Radford, for instance, is so clean right now you could open a restaurant on it tomorrow,” Hawkins said. “I don’t really see us having much of a problem from leaking shipwrecks near Ocean City.”