Saturday, May 16, 2015

"The black blood of the machine age": Environmental impact of oil spills from ships sunk during the Battle of the Atlantic, offshore US, 1942

Last week, Friday, May 8, was the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II in Europe (Victory in Europe or VE day). The eastern US Atlantic States were spared direct attack, but offshore, shipping, primarily merchant shipping, was targeted heavily by German U-boats from January to August 1942. The quote in the blogpost title vividly refers to petroleum and comes from the documentary Victory at Sea (1952), Episode 3: "Sealing the Breach", which describes the German Atlantic submarine campaign in the first months following the United States’ entry into the war. The high US losses were due to ships traveling alone, nighttime glow from coastal cities silhouetting ship outlines, and lack of adequate Coast Guard and Navy ships and planes for defense against submarines. 

Once armed convoys were instituted for east coast shipping, losses decreased, but 350-400 ships had been sunk (sources vary on number). German U-boats then concentrated on shipping in the Gulf of Mexico (GoM) and the Caribbean. In the GoM, tankers carrying oil from Texas and Louisiana (Victory at Sea) and from refineries in Curacao and Aruba (MIT report cited below) were primary targets. Once armed convoys began there in late 1943, attacks also decreased.

My mother (born 1928) spent parts of many youthful summers in Point Pleasant Beach (PPB), New Jersey, an Atlantic coastal town with a great long white sand beach and boardwalk where her own mother's family had lived for generations. (PPB is about 18 miles from the former Naval Air Station at Lakehurst where the hydrogen-fueled German Zeppelin Hindenburg exploded and burned in May 1937: relatives remembered everyone standing outside to watch the Hindenberg fly over, then several minutes later hearing the fire sirens from many local communities.) My mother had mentioned that during World War II, oil and tar was seen on the beach from destroyed ships. Fifteen years later, we spent the entire 1957 summer living in PPB and made daily morning expeditions to the beach. I don't remember any tar balls, only occasional mass strandings of clear jelly fish at low tide, but then I was only six. 

What was the immediate impact, and any lasting effects, of oil spills from tankers and ships torpedoed offshore New Jersey during WWII? I found an excellent 1977 report called Impact of Oil Spillage from World War II Tanker Sinkings by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Sea Grant Program ( Motivated by then-recent tanker spills, such as the Argo Merchant, December 1976, the researchers focused on two US east coast locations: one main site, Cape Hatteras, North Carolina, because of the large number of nearby offshore sinkings, and one auxiliary site, Asbury Park, NJ, ten miles north of Point Pleasant Beach. The MIT team compiled data from historical records and archives, newspaper and magazine articles, and interviews with coastal residents and shipwreck survivors. They focused on tanker sinkings, which were 70% of US east coast attacks in 1942.

Here are volumes of oil from the report along with other spill volumes for comparison (Exxon Valdez, Argo Merchant, Torrey Canyon from Wikipedia; Deepwater Horizon, various sources including Federal reports; volumes originally given as metric tons or gallons were converted using
  • US Atlantic coast sinkings, first half 1942: 3.55 million barrels (1/4 of this off Cape Hatteras)
  • Offshore central New Jersey, first half 1942, based on reported volumes of three torpedoed tankers: 264,000 barrels
  • Argo Merchant, tanker (1976): 183,333 barrels
  • Exxon Valdez, tanker (1989): 260,000 barrels spilled (commonly accepted number; was carrying 1.31 million barrels)
  • Torrey Canyon, tanker (UK; 1967): 762,000 barrels
  • Deepwater Horizon platform/well (2010): 4.9 million barrels 
The MIT researchers found there was little oil seen ashore in North Carolina north of Hatteras, but considerable amounts were on beaches to the south around Ocracoke Island, NC. However, there were no reliable reports of any severe or lasting damage to animal populations or habitats. The barrier islands of the North Carolina Outer Banks were true barriers protecting the rich fauna and flora of Pamlico Sound inside to the west. There were minor reports of oiled birds, but were no colloquial reports of offshore fish decreases; commercial fishery records were not available for 1940-45.

The second site examined by the MIT group was the Asbury Park, NJ, area. One of the reasons for this site choice was newspaper and magazine coverage of oil on the beaches, which were, and still are, a major tourist attraction and source of local income. The oil cleanup at Belmar, a beach town between Asbury Park and Point Pleasant Beach, was documented by a Life magazine photographer. The solution to clear oil from the beach surface sand was to fill long ten-foot-deep trenches, dug into the sand, with five feet of the oily sand before covering and burying with clean sand. There was concern that storms would exhume the oil, and variable reports on whether that happened. Like North Carolina, while oiled birds were reported, there was not any recognized effect on fish or bird population numbers.
Tar and oil from torpedoed US tankers on beach at Belmar, NJ, June 1942 
(all photos by Marie Hansen, Time-Life Picture Agency)

Oily sand at Belmar, NJ, June 1942

Ten-foot-deep trenches, on the beach, for burying oily sand at Belmar, NJ, June 1942

The MIT report concluded, that despite uncertainties due to limited data, “regional wildlife and economy survived with minimal difficulty”. The only remediation documented, besides the burning oil at time of attack, was the cosmetic New Jersey coastal beach clean-up.

That there was apparent minimal impact from WWII shipwrecked petroleum is surprising, compared to what we have more recently witnessed from the Deepwater Horizon spill. Major differences in those two events are, in my opinion:
1) Volume of released petroleum;
2) DwH leakage was continuous compared to more sporadic or intermittent torpedoing of ships;
3) Most of shipwreck leakage (point of entry into ocean) was assumably at or close to the surface, whereas, DwH was essentially all at the seafloor;

However, environmental threat from WWII shipwrecks is not past. (Reminder in reference to April 14 post on the Titanic: that ship only used coal, and Palmer and others’ 2003 report referenced there found little geochemical impact from coal on the seafloor.) In 2011, the Baltimore Sun reported that NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) was "taking an inventory of more than 30,000 coastal shipwrecks — some of them casualties of the 1942 Battle of the Atlantic — and identifying those that pose the most significant threat". The subsequent report by the NOAA National Marine Sanctuaries office was completed in 2013 and submitted to the US Coast Guard. The assessment examined fuel type (oil, coal, wind/sail), salvage engineering and environmental risk assessment with historical and archeological data. The report concluded that 36 wrecks in US waters pose a "worst case discharge" threat from potential oil leakage, recommending 17 for further assessment. Seven of those are on the east coast from North Carolina to Massachusetts. Two more are off the east coast of Florida, five in the GoM, and the remaining three are along the US Pacific coast.

Some of the shipwrecks assessed may be eligible for the National Register of Historic Places, and many are gravesites. The most famous leaking WWII vessel is, of course, the USS Arizona sunk in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, December 7, 1941. The rainbow oil sheen, the "black blood", always present is one somber reminder that the ship is also a tomb ( ; scroll down to information on USS Arizona).

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