70-year-old shipwreck threatens to spill oil

July 27, 2009 12:57:57 PM PDT
The tides off the Central California Coast are telling a compelling story that begins nearly 70 years ago, just days after the attack on Pearl Harbor.

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An oil tanker called the Montebello, loaded with 78,000 barrels of crude oil, was sunk five miles offshore. Now, it is beginning to pose a major environmental threat.

The Montebello left Port San Luis on California's Central Coast heading to Vancouver, British Columbia early in the morning on December 23, 1941. Its cargo hold contained more than 4 million gallons of Santa Maria crude oil.

"We had been out of Port San Luis then, about two and half, three hours," recalled Richard Quincy.

Then 22-year-old seaman from Danville was on watch that morning. Just hours after leaving port something in the water caught his eye.

"And, I saw a stark outline on the water," he said just before calling the chief mate. "I said, 'There it is.' I could see the outline again and just said as I said that the torpedo hit."

Chaos ensued on board the Montebello. The torpedo had struck the tanker's bow, hitting an empty storage tank. The crew rushed to get off the ship. The Montebello was sinking.

Remarkably, the all 38 crew members on board escaped.

"We didn't see any oil on the water," Quincy recalled.

From a distance, the crew watched the Montebello go down.

"Why, we just saw the ship tip up, right straight up in the air. In fact I said, "There goes the stern of the Montebello,'" Quincy remembered.

In 1996, researchers uncovered the wreckage in 900 feet of water just five miles off the California Coast, south of the Point Piedras Blancas Lighthouse. Sitting upright, the wreck was in remarkably good condition.

Robert Schwemmer was among the researchers who explored the wreck in 1996.

"I've been diving shipwrecks for 30 years and this is the most intact steel-hulled vessel I've ever seen," he told ABC 7.

Now, he is with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). He went back to the Montebello in 2003 and saw clear signs that the ship was beginning to show its age.

"The question is, is the oil on board?" he says.

That is precisely what concerns environmentalists, scientists and residents along California's Central Coast.

"The historic record has not revealed any oil discharge or oiled beaches in the area. So, that leads us to believe it potentially has the oil," Schwemmer said.

Not only does the area offer some of the most beautiful views in the state, but it is teeming with wildlife on the edge of the Monterey National Marine Sanctuary.

"The water temperature's 41 degrees. So, the consistency of this oil is a tar ball or Jell-o," Schwemmer said.

If there is oil and it comes loose, it will float to the surface and when heated by sun, it could spread up and down the coast. The amount of oil onboard the Montebello is roughly one-third of that released by the Exxon Valdez in Alaska.

Gary Talley says, "They're still cleaning up there after the Exxon Valdez."

Talley lives in Cambria and is a retired safety engineer and quality assurance manager for Hughes Aircraft. He has studied how things fail most of his life and says it is not a matter of if the Montebello fails, but when.

"At some point down here the first compartment is going to fail. 10,000 barrels are going to get loose. After that, in short order, the other ones are going to fail," Talley said.

That could be devastating to coastal communities that depend on tourism and catastrophic to wildlife. That is why local Assemblyman Sam Blakeslee has asked the state to determine whether or not the Montebello is still full of oil.

"We have what could potentially be a ticking time bomb," he said.

A state task force will now assess the threat the Montebello poses and come back with some answers in the coming month.

"Once we know that we will be in a much better position to really plan our next steps," he said.

Stephen Sawyer is with the State Office of Oil Spill Prevention and Response, one of the lead agencies on the task force.

"We're also going to look at points of risk. For example, if the oil was to be released, would it be released through the hull? Would it be released through a hatch? Perhaps the piping?" he asked.

The state will have to decide what to do next. It can pump the oil out or install monitors to keep tabs on it. There is currently no funding for either option. That will be up to the state legislature once the task force releases its report.

However, for residents along the coast, time may be running out.

"It's so imperative that we take actions now and not wait for a disaster to occur," said Quincy.

For year's Richard Quincy was labeled a liar. No one believed him when he told them a tanker full of oil was sitting off the California Coast. Now, he looks back on all those years and wonders if an environmental catastrophe will be diverted in time.

NOTE: The original research for this story was done by Patrick Howe, managing editor of New Times in San Luis Obispo. Click here to read the original report.

This report was written and produced by Ken Miguel

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