The Tale of Dirty, Old, Leaky Zalinski
September 10, 2019 8:48 AM   Subscribe

A Second World War-era shipwreck is a haunting reminder that you can never fully clean up an oil spill.

An officer aboard the United States Army transport ship Brigadier General M. G. Zalinski described an autumn rainstorm on British Columbia’s north coast as a fluid wall “so heavy that one could not distinguish rain drops falling.” Even the steel bow of the 76.5-meter ship disappeared from his view.

posted by poffin boffin (12 comments total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
At least the dog made it out safely.
posted by Burhanistan at 9:02 AM on September 10, 2019 [4 favorites]

I have traversed that channel on a B.C. ferry. It's a stunning 2 day journey - waterfall after waterfall cascading directly into the salt water from snow melt on peaks towering high above, and no sign of civilisation for hours and hours. The cliff walls are very close on both sides but they continue down deep below the water line so large ships can traverse safely.

The whole route seems to be available in Google Street View too.
posted by CynicalKnight at 10:13 AM on September 10, 2019 [6 favorites]

Fascinating article, but disturbing: there's really no way to fully clean up these wrecks without risking even more damage. And they're going to continue so long as we keep shipping contaminants across the oceans.
posted by suelac at 11:04 AM on September 10, 2019 [1 favorite]

Another famous example of this phenomenon are the Black Tears of the USS Arizona at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. The US Navy has for decades been quietly but frantically trying to figure out how to protect the lagoon environment and if possible preserve the wreck. There doesn't seem to be a good answer. Right now it looks like any attempt to remove the oil and bunker fuel will just hasten its release into the water.

Disturbing trivia fact I learned while in the Navy: The USS Arizona is still on the official Naval Register of ships, although her status has been changed from "Active Ship" to "In Service as War Grave."
posted by seasparrow at 12:41 PM on September 10, 2019 [11 favorites]

There is one major statement in this that needs correction: The good news is that salvage technology and equipment continue to improve, but, as the Zalinski demonstrates, they come at a high cost and not a whole lot of oil is actually removed from the environment. Transport Canada expects that a cleanup operation can only recover 10 to 15 percent of a marine oil spill.

A salvage operation from a sunken wreck like the Zalinski is not at all similar to a surface oil spill response operation. The 10% to 15% recovery number refers only to the latter, an open water spill like the Exxon Valdez spill. This number is representative of oil captured on open water by skimming vessels and from shoreline removal. The rest of the oil in the case of an uncontrolled surface spill disperses into the ocean, evaporates in to the air (though Bunker C doesn't evaporate) or is stranded on coastlines and not recovered.

By contrast, an oil salvage operation involves removal directly from the tanks, holds and containing superstructure of the ship. Oil and oily water is contained and pumpable. Generally most of a hold or tank is able to be emptied when accessed. In some cases this is done through divers directing vacuum hoses into the holds, in others, by "hot tapping" through the vessel wall with a thermal lance and creating a bulkhead valve on the side of the wreck. A minimum of the oil trapped on the vessel is released to the environment, at least if all goes well. The exact percentage of oil recovered depends on how accessible the oil is (if a ship is lying on a side or against a wall like the Zalinski is, half of it may be difficult to access), and how structurally sound the ship itself is. The amount of oil remove is very dependent on the exact situation of the wreck.

The quoted statement above mistakes the salvage operation with worst-case open water oil spill recovery. The two are very different operations, involving different equipment and response operators. It is categorically incorrect to use an estimate for on-water response for oil salvage.

Full disclosure, my group participated in both the recovery of oil from the Zalinski and the Queen of the North wrecks.
posted by Anonymous 5$ Sockpuppet at 1:52 PM on September 10, 2019 [20 favorites]

by "hot tapping" through the vessel wall with a thermal lance

Well, that sent me down a YouTube rabbit hole of amazing underwater metal cutting.
posted by Dip Flash at 4:19 PM on September 10, 2019 [2 favorites]

Just another example of the amazing benefits we will one day getting ourselves off hydrocarbons.
posted by Slarty Bartfast at 7:23 PM on September 10, 2019 [1 favorite]

Why wartime wrecks are slicking time bombs, New Scientist, Mick Hamer, September 1, 2010:
The second world war saw the greatest-ever loss of shipping: more than three-quarters of the oil-containing wrecks around the globe date from the six years of this war. Sunken merchant ships are scattered around trade routes, the victims of attack by U-boats and other craft aiming to disrupt enemy nations’ supply lines (see map).

Then there are the naval ships sunk during great engagements such as the attack on Pearl Harbor and the battle of Chuuk Lagoon, the Japanese base in the Pacific where the US sank over 50 Japanese ships. In some locations these hulks are already leaking oil, threatening pristine shorelines, popular beaches and breeding grounds for fish. This year, for example, oil has begun to leak from the Darkdale, a British naval tanker that sank in 1941 near the island of St Helena in the south Atlantic Ocean. It was carrying more than 4000 tonnes of oil when it went down.
There may be huge uncertainties about exactly how much oil is out there, but no one doubts that it dwarfs any single previous maritime spill. Etkin and Trevor Gilbert put the figure at somewhere between 2.5 million tonnes and 20 million tonnes. Even the lower estimate is more than double the amount of oil thought to have been spilled into the Gulf of Mexico by the Deepwater Horizon accident and more than 60 times that of the Exxon Valdez (see diagram).
WWII was a global ecological catastrophe as well as a human one.
posted by cenoxo at 8:01 PM on September 10, 2019 [1 favorite]

The UK Ministry of Defence has been managing similar issues with the wreck of HMS Royal Oak at Scapa Flow, made more challenging by the site being a protected war grave. Here's a presentation (PDF of a Powerpoint deck) by Dr Polly Hill that illustrates some of the techniques, such as hot tapping, discussed in the OP-linked article.

(As an aside, in searching for that I found out about Spillcon, the conference for people who deal with oil spills.)
posted by Major Clanger at 11:43 PM on September 10, 2019

I have to imagine illegal salvagers of wrecks such as WWII Dutch submarines are mostly in it for the metal, and aren't much concerned about salvaging oil first.
posted by low_frequency_feline at 9:58 AM on September 11, 2019

Well, yeah, I don't think there's any resale value in recovered petroleum there. The only money from salvaging oil would be government cleanup contracts.
posted by Burhanistan at 11:56 AM on September 11, 2019

Also, that article that low_frequency_feline linked is pretty interesting. One reason old WWII steel is in demand by salvagers is because it is "low background" steel.
posted by Burhanistan at 11:59 AM on September 11, 2019

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