World War Two wrecks haunt Pacific with oil spills
Author: Michael Christie
Loaded with oil, chemicals and ordnance, the sunken aircraft carriers, battleships, destroyers and oil tankers are succumbing to five decades of storms and seawater, regional officials say.
At risk are pristine coral reefs, fish stocks that supply Japanese sushi markets and idyllic tourist destinations.
Last year, up to 24,000 gallons (91,000 litres) of fuel spilled from the USS Mississinewa into the remote Ulithi Lagoon in Yap, Federated States of Micronesia, preventing the 700 islanders living on the atoll from fishing for their food.
The leak from the military oil tanker, sunk by a one-man Japanese suicide sub in 1944 as the U.S. Third Fleet prepared for the assault on Japan, was eventually plugged by U.S. Navy divers.
But another five million gallons (19 million litres) of aviation fuel and oil remain onboard, threatening to spill every time a cyclone sweeps by or age degrades another rusty bolt.
The USS Mississinewa is just one of 1,080 wrecks that the South Pacific Regional Environment Programme (SPREP) has charted as it tries to persuade the victors and vanquished of World War Two to help the region avoid looming environmental disasters.
"There's no question that there is a problem because we've just had this major spill out in Yap," said Sefanaia Nawadra, marine pollution advisor with SPREP.
"Basically we have to deal with it otherwise this will keep on occurring," Nawadra of the Samoa-based SPREP told Reuters.
A similar threat to the Mississinewa is represented by the oil tanker USS Neosho, sunk with the giant USS Lexington aircraft carrier and the destroyer USS Sims in 1942 during the Coral Sea battle, 200 nautical miles off Australia's Great Barrier Reef.
"If you look at just the two oil tankers, the one in Micronesia and the one off the Great Barrier Reef, the amount of oil that just those two tankers alone contain is equivalent to the amount of oil that was spilled during Exxon Valdez," said Trevor Gilbert, an oil spill advisor to SPREP.
RECOGNISED WAR GRAVES
Of the three million tonnes of warships under the Pacific, around two thirds belonged to the Japanese and most of the rest to the United States. A few are Australian or from New Zealand.
Unlike commercial vessels, where salvagers can claim rights to sunken cargo, warships forever belong to their flag state nations. In addition, many are recognised war graves.
SPREP has just begun to catalogue the environmental threat, compiling a list including 23 large aircraft carriers, 213 destroyers, 22 battle ships and 50 oil tankers, plus submarines. The number of merchant navy vessels is a bigger unknown.
SPREP now needs money for a more detailed study to identify wrecks that pose a high risk and must be dealt with immediately.
Its appeal for help has met with sympathy from sections of the U.S. government but a rather chillier reception from Tokyo, regional officials say.
With the potential price tag for pumping just the USS Mississinewa dry of oil reaching up to $6 million, both appear understandably reluctant to take full responsibility.
"What we've argued from the standpoint of countries in the Pacific is, okay hang on, we didn't really have a choice in whether we participated or not in the war," said Nawadra.
"The adversaries came and fought the war in our backyard and now we're expected to deal with this as well."
Many of the wrecks are in the graveyards of some of the Pacific's great battles - Iron Bottom Sound off Guadalcanal in the Solomons, where up to 550,000 tonnes of shipping was sunk, and Truk Lagoon in Micronesia, where 200,000 tonnes of warships were lost in an area just 60 km (40 miles) across.
The countries themselves do not have the resources for major salvage or environmental operations.
Nor is the problem unique to the Pacific.
"This may be a problem for the Pacific right now but it's going to be a big problem in the Mediterranean and off the (U.S.) state of California," said Nawadra.