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Montebello turns out empty 

After 11 days of testing, the multi-agency task force assembled to assess the threat posed by the sunken S.S. Montebello concluded that there are no visible signs of oil in her hull.

“Our No. 1 objective for this mission was to determine what threat, if any, the Montebello poses to the waters and shorelines of California,” Coast Guard Capt. Roger Laferriere said in a written statement. “After careful evaluation of the data, we have concluded with a high level of confidence that there is no oil threat from the S.S. Montebello.”

click to enlarge MISSION ACCOMPLISHED :  The private salvage vessel, the Nanuq, sits parked over the wreckage of the sunken Montebello, approximately six miles off the Cambria coast, on Oct. 13. - PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
  • PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
  • MISSION ACCOMPLISHED : The private salvage vessel, the Nanuq, sits parked over the wreckage of the sunken Montebello, approximately six miles off the Cambria coast, on Oct. 13.

Within minutes of the news release, state Sen. Sam Blakeslee (R-San Luis Obispo), whose persistence led to the formation of the task force, issued the following statement:

“The finding of no substantial oil threat is a huge relief to our community and the result we had all hoped for. The U.S. Coast Guard and [Fish and Game’s Office of Spill Prevention and Response] deserve enormous credit for leading this complex and technically challenging project. The team brought to bear the best minds and most advanced tools to ascertain the condition of this 70-year-old shipwreck.”

The effort cost roughly $5 million, and officials point out that it was entirely paid for by the Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund, a special fund comprised of fees paid by oil companies, not taxpayers.

Just hours before New Times published an article on the task force’s mission (“One-twentieth of a league under the sea,” Oct. 20) Department of Fish and Game officials reported that crews had run into problems drilling into the hull, and that the mission was expected to last a few days longer than expected. But crews were able to get the drill running and take a number of samples over the next 24 hours.

Of course, a hull void of the potential 3 million gallons of Santa Maria crude it was carrying when it went down raises other questions. Where did it go?

U.S. Coast Guard Petty Officer and Public Affairs Liaison for the Montebello mission, Adam Eggers, told New Times the data suggests the oil could have spilled the day the Montebello sank, the months after, or even slowly throughout the decades.

“Basically, any scenario you can think up is a possibility right now,” Eggers said. “We don’t know.”

The Department of Fish and Game’s Office of Spill Prevention and Response is now taking trace oil samples to its laboratory in Rancho Cordova to compare with other samples found washed up on California beaches throughout the years. Such testing could provide better light on when the oil escaped, where it went, and what damage it potentially caused.

Eggers said more information will become available in the coming weeks, and a final report is expected for release in spring 2012.

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