Earlier this month, the Coast Guard received a call from a fishing boat reporting a small amount oil leaking on the surface of the ocean 35 miles southeast of Cape Lookout.
It was coming from the W.E. Hutton, a tanker torpedoed by a German U-boat in March 1942 as it carried 65,000 barrels of heating oil from Texas to Pennsylvania. The sinking killed 13 and left an unknown amount of oil in the ship’s wreckage on the ocean floor.
The Hutton is one of hundreds of wrecks off the North Carolina coast, known as the Graveyard of the Atlantic, where treacherous currents, shifting sands and strong storms have feasted on ships for centuries. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration or NOAA has determined that at least 13 of those wrecks pose a pollution threat because of the oil that remains on board.
Six days after the leak on the Hutton was reported, it was plugged by the Atlantic Coast Marine Group, a marine salvage and environmental services company hired by the Coast Guard.
Lee Sykes, president and owner of Atlantic Coast Marine Group, said divers traced the leak to the ship’s hold near the stern.
The ship rests 140 feet beneath the ocean’s surface. Because of the depth and the nature of the pollution, Atlantic Coast Marine used seven dive teams, allotting divers only 20 minutes at the shipwreck at a time.
The oil was leaking from a hole the size of an index finger. The structure was sound enough to place an epoxy, a liquid adhesive that hardens, to cover the hole on July 21. The epoxy is likely only a temporary solution.
“The hull of the boat is rusting. Over time it’s going to give way,” Sykes said. “Is it worth pumping oil from the wreck or do we go ahead and seal it and watch?”
On Wednesday, divers returned to the wreck and decided to keep the plug sealed rather than extract the oil.
NOAA tracks shipwrecks along the coast and last year released a report documenting the pollution risk they pose in U.S. waters. The project began after mysterious oil spills along California’s coast were traced back to a sunken ship.
There are approximately 20,000 known shipwrecks on the U.S. Coast, said Frank Csulak, NOAA scientific support coordinator. Only a fraction of those are likely to contain oil because most ships are defueled to eliminate any environmental threat after they sink.
The W.E. Hutton was one of 573 coastal wrecks that NOAA considered possible oil pollution threats. After further research, the agency whittled that number down to 87 “potentially polluting wrecks,” including 13 along the North Carolina coast. The Hutton did not make the list.
“NOAA divers have visited this wreck and video footage of the wreck available online shows all tanks open to the sea and no longer capable of retaining oil,” the agency concluded.
Csulak said the recent oil leak was probably caused by Hurricane Arthur when it passed over the wreck July 3.
“There’s residual oil in nooks and crannies which is the case in a lot of sunken vessels,” Csulak said. “If the wreckage was disturbed, it opens up a possibility of oil to leak.”
When a leak is reported, the Coast Guard consults NOAA’s records. Generally the Coast Guard handles situations reported to them, but in this case determined contractors were better equipped.
“When we do get a report like that we respond pretty quickly,” said David Ormes, Coast Guard’s District 5 incident management and preparedness adviser. “We have responsibilities for search and rescue, so while they’re flying they’re looking for any hazards as well.”
Although the oil on the W.E. Hutton may be an environmental threat, the wreck has created an ecosystem rich in marine life that attracts both divers and fishermen. The concern, Sykes said, is that the leak could put a dent in diving tourism by damaging that ecosystem.
“Tons of divers and sport fisherman go to the ship,” Sykes said. “You want to preserve it because of its history, tourism and marine life.”'Potentially Polluting Wrecks' in N.C. waters
There are 13 ships off the North Carolina coast on NOAA’s list of “Potentially Polluting Wrecks in U.S. Waters.” The agency lists the maximum amount of oil thought to be on board; the exact amount is unknown.
- Allan Jackson: Sunk Jan. 18, 1942, in an act of war with 81,000 barrels of crude oil.
- Buarque: Sunk Feb. 15, 1924, in an act of war with 9,000 barrels of heavy oil.
- Empire Gem: Sunk Jan. 14, 1942, in an act of war with 2,000 barrels of heavy oil.
- Lancing: Sunk April 7, 1942, in an act of war with 77,000 barrels of light oil.
- Ljubica Matkovic: Sunk June 24, 1942, in an act of war with 7,000 barrels of heavy oil
- Marit II: Sunk Sept. 13, 1946, in a storm with 84,000 barrels of crude oil.
- Mormackite: Sunk Oct. 7, 1942, in a storm with 6,000 barrels of heavy oil.
- Norlavore: Sunk Feb. 24, 1942, in a storm with 4,000 barrels of heavy oil.
- Nordal: Sunk June 24, 1942, in an act of war with 8,000 barrels of heavy oil.
- Paestum: Sunk Oct. 7, 1966, because of flooding with 12,000 barrels of heavy oil.
- Panam: Sunk May 4, 1943, in an act of war with 7,000 barrels of light oil.
- Venore: Sunk Jan. 24, 1942, in an act of war with 10,000 barrels of heavy oil
William Rockefeller: Sunk June 28, 1942, in an act of war with 150,000 barrels of heavy oil.