Gulf Disaster Renews SS Montebello Concerns

A World War II oil tanker that was sunk off the California Coast in 1941 by a Japanese submarine has researchers concerned in the wake of the Gulf Coast oil leak disaster.

The SS Montebello, which sits at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean off the coast of Cambria, about 100 miles south of Monterey and just outside the Monterey Bay Sanctuary.  It carries more than 73,000 barrels of heavy crude oil, and local marine organizations are concerned that a leak could threaten marine life along the Monterey Coast. 

Researchers have gone on two expeditions to examine the condition of the sunken ship -- one in 1996 and a second in 2003.

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"They did see areas of rust that they didn't see in the '96 dive," said Stephen Sawyer, of the California Department of Fish and Game.

Even though the oil is in a glue-like pasty state 1,000 feet below in the water, National Marine Sanctuary superintendent Paul Michel said it's still a threat to the health of marine life -- a threat that is too great to ignore.

"Over time, as a tanker degrades, it could leak from the ship, and as it rises to surface it could warm up enough to become a problem," Michel said.

Sawyer said that a natural disaster could also cause problems.

"If there's a catastrophic release, like an earthquake, this vessel should crack open, and the bulk of oil would be released," Sawyer said.

The state of California has created the Montebello Assessment Task Force -- made up of experts from groups like the Department of Fish and Game, the National Marine Sanctuary and the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute -- in 2009.

The team has scheduled two dives, one in August and the second in September, to check if there have been any oil leaks since the last expedition in 2003.

"That's our biggest concern because the impact on the Central Coast could be huge," Sawyer said.

The team has also come up with a couple of solutions that could help prevent a major catastrophe.

The first solution would be to warm up and pump the oil out of the tanker, which would cost millions. The second idea it to raise enough money to buy an oil-slick detection system for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which would sound an alarm if a leak is detected.

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