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Taking watch on the Montebello 

Unless something's done, a sunken tanker's oil will someday leak; what then?

It was just two days before Christmas, barely two weeks after the attack on Pearl Harbor. The crew of the Montebello knew there were Japanese submarines lurking off the California coast, but they voted to ship out on the oil tanker anyway. The decision wasn’t easy; their would-be captain opted to quit rather than take the risk.

click to enlarge IN HAPPIER DAYS:  The Montebello is seen motoring in Vancouver, where it was headed on its final voyage. - PHOTO COURTESY OF THE VANCOUVER MARITIME MUSEUM
  • IN HAPPIER DAYS: The Montebello is seen motoring in Vancouver, where it was headed on its final voyage.
They’d been out only hours when Richard Quincy, then a 22-year-old seaman, first spotted the sub. The Montebello was motoring in rough seas, lights out, about six miles off the Cambria coast. He saw a flash of something in the oil tanker’s wake and called his chief mate over to point it out. They lost sight of the vessel, but before long he spotted it again off the ship’s starboard side.

“I said, ‘There it is!’ I pointed just as the torpedo hit.”

The missile rocked the tanker, and Quincy says he and others on the crew were convinced the oil it carried would explode. It didn’t, but the tanker quickly began to sink.

He and the other crewmen scrambled into four lifeboats, using a hatchet to cut their tethering ropes as gunfire from the sub’s deck guns sailed over their heads. Everyone survived the attack, and Quincy recalls watching the boat stand straight up out of the water just before it went down.

Quincy is now 89 and living in Danville, but he recalls the events of that night with stunning detail.

In fact, he says, it’s partly a relief to be able to tell the story to people who accept it at face value. During the war and for years after, the military worked to downplay or deny the extent of Japanese intrusions into waters off of the Pacific coast.

It got so bad, Quincy said, that when he used to try to tell his story, many people flat out called him a liar, saying it was well known that the Japanese didn’t sink any ships off the California coast. Eventually, he stopped telling his story.

These days, nobody challenges the story, but plenty of people are interested in hearing about the ship.

click to enlarge YOUNG SEAMAN :  Richard Quincy at age 22, before the Japanese attacked his ship. - PHOTO COURTESY OF NOAA
  • YOUNG SEAMAN : Richard Quincy at age 22, before the Japanese attacked his ship.
That’s because there are growing concerns that the Montebello could offer up a second adventure/disaster story, this one of an ecological nature.

Researchers are confident that the tanker still entombs its cargo, more than 3 million gallons of Santa Maria crude loaded from the Union Oil facility in Avila Beach. Jack Hunter, a marine archaeologist with CalTrans, helped organize the first dive on the wreck, in 1996, and dove on it again in the second and most recent expedition, in 2003.

The difference, he said, was startling.

In 1996, the ship, sitting on a bed of sand 900 feet below, seemed intact, with its paint still looking fresh. In 2003, however, “there was a very large rust spot in the middle of each tank. She was finally starting to show her age.”

Quincy notes that there’s an old sailor’s saying: “Rust never quits. Eventually it’s going to go.”

And when it does, he says, “that’s going to be a real mess.”

Looking for a fix

If Quincy was witness to the Montebello’s life and death, there’s another waterman, another veteran, who intends to watch over the ship’s afterlife. Ideally, Gary Talley says, he’ll be able to convince the U.S. Navy to arrange to pump out the ship’s oil before it spills and ruins the coastline the Cambrian loves. At the very least, he hopes to preside over the installation of a way to monitor the vessel so there’ll be a warning when it does begin to leak.

click to enlarge ON WATCH:  Gary Talley has taken it upon himself to warn politicians and others about the potential ecological disaster the Montebello poses to a tourism-dependent Central Coast. - PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
  • ON WATCH: Gary Talley has taken it upon himself to warn politicians and others about the potential ecological disaster the Montebello poses to a tourism-dependent Central Coast.
  Talley’s house is ship-shape, his garden is meticulous. His mustache is trim and his shirt is neatly pressed. Pictures of John McCain and George Bush hang on his wall, near those of his former sailboat. At Hughes Aircraft Radar Systems Group, he was a safety engineer and quality assurance manager; before that, the engineer helped test the lunar lander for NASA. If he asked to borrow your car, you’d let him, confident it would come back tuned and gassed.

In short, George Talley seems to have his stuff together.

So when Talley says he’s convinced that there’s a coming ecological disaster, and that nobody seems to be doing anything about it, it may be worth a listen.

Talley first heard talk about the Montebello in 2002, and it didn’t take him long to become an expert on the wreck. With his background, he said, he quickly got very concerned over what might happen to the coastline he loves if the Montebello’s hull fails.

He began speaking to groups of military officers, and started writing letters to officials in hopes of getting someone interested enough to do something about the wreck and its potential.

“People had better be scared of it,” he says, “because if even one of the eight compartments gets loose, we’re in a lot of trouble.”

What exactly might happen? In Talley’s words: “The worst possible scenario would be if the deck falls apart, leaving a gaping hole above the oil. A huge mass would escape all at once and ascend. Remember, we’re looking at a compartment that is 50 feet in length, 58 feet wide at the beam, and 32 feet deep. That is a globule of crude as big as a house. If it all comes out quickly and ascends quickly, we will have a disaster on our hands.”

If winds are unusual, and come from the south, the entire spill would head toward the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary. The wreck sits just outside of the sanctuary’s boundaries

click to enlarge A YELLOW SUBMARINE :  The Delta submarine researchers used to visit the wreck is so small, the operator’s chair straddles the passenger, who must lie prone and peer out of a separate porthole. - PHOTO BY ROBERT SCHWEMMER, NOAA
  • A YELLOW SUBMARINE : The Delta submarine researchers used to visit the wreck is so small, the operator’s chair straddles the passenger, who must lie prone and peer out of a separate porthole.
But, by the former scuba instructor and sailor’s reckoning, the prevailing currents would bring the oil south, to Moonstone Beach, Morro Bay, and Avila Beach. If waters are calm, perhaps the U.S. Coast Guard could respond with log booms and skimmers. If the failure occurs in a storm, however, it could go straight toward the Diablo Canyon Nuclear Plant’s salt-water intake valves undetected, causing unknowable consequences.

It was that possibility that led Talley to bring the matter up with PG&E. Talley took a tour of the plant and shared his very specific concerns with company officials in a letter. An engineer responded in a recent meeting of the Diablo Canyon Independent Safety Concern. While the engineer had clearly become versed in the publicly available information about the tanker, his report didn’t mention any corrective actions the company planned to take, and this didn’t impress Talley.

“I had hoped to hear they would be installing oil-slick detectors offshore from their saltwater intakes, or at least give some thought to this,” he said. “No such luck.”

It isn’t the first time Talley’s been disappointed in a lack of official attention to the Montebello.

As he wrote in a 2004 letter to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (he never received an answer): “Our time left until this disaster can be measured in the few millimeters of un-rusted hull above the oil in the Montebello.”

He reminds anyone who needs a reminder that the spill of the Exxon Valdez tanker, which affected 1,100 miles of Alaska’s coastline, killed hundreds of thousands of birds, thousands of otters, and has continued to impact fishing in the area, involved about 10.8 million gallons.

Much of the most dramatic what-if stories are based on a worst-case scenario, Talley acknowledges. Yet the less-dramatic leak scenarios don’t offer much comfort.

By Talley’s reckoning, even if the hull begins collapsing just one hold at a time, that will still be tens of thousands of gallons of crude heading toward a tourism-dependent Central Coast.

Talley’s experience with officialdom doesn’t surprise Jack Hunter. Hunter said he gave up communicating with the Coast Guard about the wreck after becoming convinced it was not a priority for a post 9/11 military now focused on drug trafficking and anti-terrorism efforts.

“The Coast Guard’s position has been that they don’t have the resources to do anything but monitor,” he said, “and they’re not even doing that.”

A trip to the bottom of the ocean

There is, however, one government agency monitoring the wreck.

click to enlarge JELLY & BLADE :  Jellyfish examine the ship’s propeller blade. - PHOTO BY ROBERT SCHWEMMER, NOAA
  • JELLY & BLADE : Jellyfish examine the ship’s propeller blade.
Michelle Roest, a researcher with the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary was on the most recent dive to examine the ship, five years ago.

The sub was so small, as she described it, that the man driving the sub sat on a chair that straddled her back as she lay down to look out a separate portal. It was pitch black, so even with spotlights, she was able to only see a small part of the tanker at a time.

The Montebello, she says, is covered in fishing nets and has since become a haven for sea life ranging from lingcod to white sea anemone to rockfish.

“We are paying attention to it,” she said, noting that while no further visit is scheduled, it’s on the list of shipwrecks the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration deems worth tracking.

She says NOAA views the wreck with “calculated concern” because a spill would almost certainly impact the sanctuary.

“On the one hand, it seems like it’s in fairly stable condition. On the other hand, the materials the vessel was composed of have been gradually decaying for 60 years. Just the fact that it’s been there for so long means it’s a concern.”

The good news, such as it is, is that the oil was so viscous that it had to be thinned by heating to be pumped into the tanker, and even then large amounts remained behind. (That information was supplied to researchers by Quincy, who manned the pump valves).

Now, sitting on a cold seafloor, the crude is undoubtedly closer to the consistency of toothpaste than gasoline. But that doesn’t mean it won’t rise; researchers say the oil remains more buoyant than the surrounding water. And when it reaches the surface, it will almost certainly heat up and spread.

Talley puts things in a slightly more stark perspective. He notes that the Montebello was built in 1921, just nine years after the Titanic.

“We all know the terrible condition the Titanic hull is in, five miles down.” How could the Montebello hope to be fairing much better?

And there are other, more relevant examples.

One ship, the SS Jacob Luckenback, sank 17 miles outside the Golden Gate. The submerged wreck was leaking oil, which was drifting onto the coastline. In 2002, a private company used a “Hot Tap”—hot steam is inserted to warm up the oil before a pump then sucks it out—to drain 460 tons of viscous oil out of the Luckenback’s compartments. The technology has been used for several other wrecks, as well, although experts say the Montebello’s depth, and its many holds, would present unique challenges.

Hunter noted that one challenge would be in simply getting insurance that would cover the possibility that the attempted extraction would itself lead to a spill.

Still, oil is valuable these days. At $140 a barrel, the ship’s 80,000 barrels would fetch more than $11 million. Talley hopes such a price would at least offset, if not outright fund, a pumping mission.

If pumping is Talley’s ultimate hope, in the meantime he’d settle for simply making sure someone, or something, is monitoring the wreck for leaking oil.

He hopes to raise money for NOAA to anchor a barge over the wreck that would be stocked with an oil slick detection system. If a leak were detected, an alarm would sound on an onshore receiver.

“This doesn’t take the place of pumping all the oil out of the ship, but it is a start.”

To Hunter’s trained ear, that idea sounds like overkill. He said simpler methods could detect the presence of bacteria that grow around marine oil leaks. Others have suggested the hull could be bored with small holes so the oil would theoretically leak out a little at a time.

Regardless, Hunter and others note, a final solution is elusive.

“The Montebello is ticking out there,” he said, “and right now nobody’s doing anything about it.”

Managing Editor Patrick Howe can be reached at


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