Sunken WWII ship poses no threat of oil spill, officials say

On December 23, 1941, the S.S. Montebello was torpedoed by a Japanese submarine off the coast of Cambria, California, sinking the 8,272 ton tanker carrying three million gallons of crude oil that may still be in its holds.
On December 23, 1941, the S.S. Montebello was torpedoed by a Japanese submarine off the coast of Cambria, California, sinking the 8,272 ton tanker carrying three million gallons of crude oil that may still be in its holds. United States Dept. of Fish and Game

A tanker that sank to the sea floor in 1941 poses no environmental risk, officials said Thursday.

The ship was believed to be carrying 3 million gallons of crude oil at the time it was torpedoed off the coast of central California. Officials who conducted an underwater survey said the ship currently has very little, or no, crude currently on board.

The announcement came Thursday following an investigation led by the U.S. Coast Guard and state Department of Fish and Game to see if any oil remained in the hold of the 440-foot S.S. Montebello.

In investigation followed the ecological disaster from last year's Gulf of Mexico oil spill, state and federal authorities wanted to determine how they might prevent crude from leaking and marring the celebrated and environmentally sensitive stretch of California coast.

"There's probably a little oil on the ship," said Andrew Hughan, a spokesman with California's Fish and Game Department. "We can't say there's no oil but there's no significant oil, which is fantastic news."

The mystery remains as to just what happened to the millions of gallons of crude that was reportedly on the ship when it went down in 900 feet of water. Scientists concluded that it may have leaked out in the hours, days and weeks after the sinking.

"There are a number of unknowns associated with this release; therefore, we will probably never know exactly what happened to the oil," said Jordan Stout, with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

The ship was hauling the crude from California to a refinery in Canada when it was torpedoed by a Japanese submarine in the early weeks of World War II and sank six miles off the coast of Cambria near Hearst Castle. All 38 people aboard the ship survived.

Concerns about the cargo of crude date to 1996, when a scientific survey located the wreck and discovered it was sitting upright and mostly intact — particularly the cargo holds. The presumption that oil was still inside led to worries of an eventual leak and environmental disaster. But the depth made recovery of any oil unlikely.

Last week, investigators using a remotely operated underwater vehicle began assessing the ship. Officials had video and photos from previous dives but this was the first time technological advancements allowed them to determine if oil remained on the ship.

Officials assessed cargo and fuel tanks and collected ocean floor sediment samples using the underwater vehicle. The samples are being sent out for further analysis.

About $5 million was budgeted for the operation, money that came out of a fund that oil companies pay into for such measures.

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