87 shipwrecks, most from WWII, could leak oil near US

This May, 14, 1942, U. S. Army Air Corps photograph, provided by the National Archives, College Park, Md., shows the burning tanker Potrero del Llano, a Mexican ship heading to New York that was sunk on May 14, 1942 by a German U-boat, about 15 miles southeast of Miami’s Biscayne Bay

By Seth Borenstein - Brandon Sun

A new government report details 87 shipwrecks — most sunk during World War II decades ago — that could pollute U.S. waters with tens of millions of gallons of oil.

Even so, the potential for pollution is less than scientists had expected. The report released Monday by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration concludes "the scope of the problem is much more manageable than initially feared.... Our coastlines are not littered with 'ticking time bombs.'"

Agency officials estimate that far less oil will leak into the ocean than the BP oil spill of 2010, which spewed roughly 200 million gallons into the Gulf of Mexico alone.

"That's not a bad number in comparison to what we first thought it would be," said NOAA's Lisa Symons, who wrote the study.

There are 20,000 shipwrecked vessels that lie off the nation's coastlines. Most of those either finished leaking long ago, ran on coal instead of oil, are too small or aren't near vulnerable land.

"There are only six that really keep me up at night, but we don't know where they all really are," Symons said. Those six have the biggest potential to foul coastal areas because even if they spill only 10 per cent of their oil, they could cause a local-scale disaster, she said. They don't have to be a worst-case spill to be a disaster.

Of those six, Symons said NOAA doesn't know the exact location of three of them, just where they were last seen before they sank. Three of the six worst potential problems are off Florida, one near Georgia, one near South Carolina and one near New York. Some are as close as 15 miles from shore.

NOAA America WW II shipwreck

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