Oil Spill Vs. Oil Leak: Are Shipwrecks Bigger Threats Than The BP Oil Spill? [REPORT]

By Philip Ross on May 20, 2013 6:14 PM EDT

sunken ships oil
Sunken war ships contain barrels of oil that could pose a threat to marine life should they deteriorate and leak. (Photo: Reuters)

During World War II, thousands of ships were torpedoed or bombed and subsequently sank to the bottom of the ocean. Today, the U.S. seabed is littered with the remnants of these perished warships, in addition to the thousands of other collapsed vessels peppered just off our coasts -- some of which contain barrels of oil that could threaten to leak into our waters.

A new government study of 87 shipwrecks, most of which were sunk during World War II, says that the ships have the potential to pollute U.S. waters. Thirty-six of the 87 vessels strewn across the U.S. seafloor are considered high-risk vessels; most of these are located off the coasts of North Carolina and Florida.

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And while the estimates of how much oil could potentially leak from these ships are much less than the over 200 million barrels spilled during the 2010 BP oil spill, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, or NOAA, says that six leaks are considered especially problematic. Five of these are off the Florida coast; one of them, just 15 miles from shore, AP reports.

In a report submitted to the U.S. Coast Guard on Monday, May 20, NOAA said it had a database of about 20,000 shipwrecks off U.S. coasts. They include a barge that sank in 1936 after it succumbed to rough waters; a tanker that exploded in 1984, and two motor-powered ships that went under in separate collisions in 1947 and 1952.

Of the 20,000 vessels in U.S. waters, the NOAA narrowed their search down to just 107 that pose any substantial pollution threat. Of those, 36 are high priority.

"Knowing where these vessels are helps oil response planning efforts and may help in the investigation of reported mystery spills--sightings of oil where a source is not immediately known or suspected," the NOAA reported in a statement released Monday.

The study comes after Congress, in 2010, gave $1 million for NOAA to identify the underwater shipwrecks that posed the greatest threat to U.S. waters.

The BP oil spill of 2010, which blanketed the waters and coastline in 4.9 million barrels, or 206 million gallons, of oil, devastated the communities along the Gulf of Mexico. It was the largest oil spill in U.S. history, and affected 16,000 miles of U.S. shoreline, from Texas to Florida. Almost 8,000 animals, including sea turtles, birds, dolphins and whales, were reported dead just six months after the spill, dosomething.org reports. The disaster devastated local fishing and tourism industries along the gulf -- not to mention the $40 billion in fines, cleanup costs and settlements that BP had to fork out for the spill.

Every year in the U.S., around 20,000 oil spills are reported and 10 to 25 million gallons of oil are inadvertently dumped into the environment, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Oil spills affect the entire marine food chain, and are especially dangerous for seabirds and sea mammals, which are most likely to come into contact with oil floating on top of the water. Oil can also remain in sediment for more than 30 years.

Fortunately, NOAA says that the threat of oil leaks from sunken ships is not as grave as initially thought. AP reports that the government agency will continue to study whether or not the oil can safely be removed from the sunken vessels before they leak into the ocean.

Read more from iScience Times:

Iran Oil Platform Sinks; Watch $40 Million Rig Collapse As Workers Flee [VIDEO]

Judge Halts Pipeline: Texas Judge Says Keystone XL Tar Sands Are Not Crude Oil

Dolphin Death Due To 'Perfect Storm' Of Cold Water And Oil Spill

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