World’s sunken wrecks a ticking timebomb

Divers on the Wreck Kyokuzan Maru Japanese freighter, sunk in 1944, Philippines, Asia. Credit: J.W. Alker/DPA/PA Images

Oil trapped in the wrecks of old ships threatens coastlines. Like old landmines, ships sunk during the last world war are “ticking time bombs”, according to a presentation at the SpillCon conference held in Perth, Australia, in May.

An estimated 8,569 potentially polluting wrecks worldwide, containing anything up to 20.4 million tonnes of fuel oil, threaten our oceans and coastlines, Matt Carter, maritime archaeologist and research director for the Major Projects Foundation, Australia, told the conference.

A case in point is the HMS Royal Oak torpedoed in 1939, off Orkney, in the United Kingdom. It began leaking oil in 1960. According to Polly Hill, salvage and marine operations, UK Ministry of Defence who also addressed the conference, 30 years on it still needed containment.

The vessel took 3,000 tonnes of furnace fuel oil with it to the bottom of the ocean. While oil was lost at the time of sinking, in 1960 fresh oil leaks surfaced. In 1996 a patch was fitted over the main leak and in 1999 after attempts to put a canopy over the leak failed, the government installed a salmon cage in Orkney Harbour to contain the spill.

In the Pacific alone up to 4.1 million tonnes of fuel oil on about 3,000 World War II wrecks threaten the environment, according to the Paul Adams, CEO Major Projects Foundation.

Adams said his work was inspired from a diving trip with his wife, “It was the first time I ever saw it,” he told SAS, “Four out of every 10 wrecks [we saw] was leaking oil. That’s big and no one is doing anything about it.”

In 2018 he and his wife set up the not-for-profit foundation and purchased a former New Zealand navy vessel, “Instead of buying a house, we bought a ship,” he said.

Adams said the project is still seeking government funding, to enable it to finish its research. In the meantime it has already mapped 3,000 ships and listed 49 critical wrecks in the Pacific regions of Micronesia, Marshall Islands, Australia, Solomon Islands, Papua New Guinea, and Palau.

Priority is given to how corroded a vessel is and its proximity to pristine coral reef, mangroves, or local communities, he told SAS. The cost of removing oil from a ship would range between AUD2 million (USD1.4 million) and AUD10 million each, Adams calculated.

“No one has any clue of the potential risk out there,” he said. “If we throw a little bit of money at it now, we can save a lot of money later. Corrosion has really got to these wrecks and if the next cyclone that comes through moves any, that’s when they start to rip open.”

The Major Projects Foundation has partnered with the University of Newcastle and the Secretariat of the Pacific Regional Environment Programme.

“We want to start in the Pacific,” said Adams, “It’s our backyard and the local people can do nothing. They have been petitioning the US and Japanese 30–40 years with no results. Time is running out and we are going to see several large oil spills in the next 10 years.”