oil from shipwrecksThe Black Tears of the Sea: The Lethal Legacy of Wrecks

A TV documentary produced by Längengrad Filmproduktion for the WDR in cooperation with Arte. Written and directed by Christian Heynen; camera by Michael Kern; underwater cameras by Konrad Dubiel, Matthias Granberg, Jörn Kumpart, Allison Low and Chris Selman; edited by Jan Wilm Schmülling; music by Thomas Wolter. English version released in July 2020 by Deutsche Welle. Running time: 42 minutes. Rated NR

A little-known menace lurks beneath the sea. In oceans around the world, thousands of sunken World War II vessels litter the seafloor, their fuel tanks rusting away and either actively leaking or poised to leak their contents into the environment. If all the oil were to be released at once, the world would suddenly be facing the equivalent of tens to hundreds of Exxon Valdez spills. Experts have long warned of this threat, but have been either silenced or told the problem is too huge to be solved.

In this English translation of the informative German TV documentary Vergessene Wracks: Schwarze Tränen der Meere, we meet a number of these experts. We begin with Benedykt Hac, a director of the Department of Operational Oceanography at the Maritime Institute in Gdańsk, Poland and head of the floating laboratory R/V Imor. In 1999 he and his crew of hydrographers, biologists and divers made an alarming discovery in the Bay of Gdańsk. While mapping the bay’s floor, they came upon the long-lost remnants of the SS Stuttgart, a German hospital ship sunk by American planes in 1943. Little remained of it, and its fuel tank had long since ruptured, causing it to seep highly toxic oil into the sediment and surrounding water.

The filmmakers accompany Hac and his team as they run their latest check on the Stuttgart site. We watch them study maps on monitors, dive underwater to take photos and lower a giant scoop to the seabed to sample the sediment. To Hac’s dismay, the sample proves to be the most dangerous they’ve ever collected, a viscous, stinking mass that contains far more oil than sand. “Look at all that oil!” he exclaims. “I’ve never seen anything like it here before.” The flow is accelerating, it seems, and every passing day brings it closer to the idyllic sandy beaches of Sopot just over a mile away. Today these beaches are a tourist mecca, but Hac believes it’s only a matter of time before they’re befouled by oil.

Hac’s repeated warnings about the peril posed by the Stuttgart wreck, as well as many others like it, have made him a thorn in the side of local authorities. He shrugs off their reprobation.

“[I]t’s not our job to please them, or to make things easy for them,” he says. “This is like a mission for us.”

Our next expert is American biologist and environmental consultant Dagmar Schmidt Etkin. In the mid-2000s, Etkin began combing through historical records and sonar images of underwater shipwrecks to determine the total number of dangerous sunken ships in existence worldwide. She identified more than 8,500 wrecks (three-quarters of them from WWII) that presented a risk to ecosystems, communities and economies. Since no one knows how much fuel is in each tank, it’s impossible to tell the total quantity of oil contained in all these ships with any degree of accuracy—but Etkin reasoned that it could be anywhere from 2.5 to 25 million tons. The film grimly informs us that a total of 15 million tons, roughly midway between the two figures above, would amount to 400 Valdez spills. Etkin says she’s shown this information to audiences around the world, but that they’ve invariably balked at the enormity of the problem and the likely cost of remediating it.

But as we soon learn, Etkin’s efforts have at least succeeded in putting the issue of dangerous shipwrecks on the radar of the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). In the next scene we find ourselves aboard the NOAA research vessel Baseline Explorer, whose crew is looking for WWII wrecks off the coast of North Carolina. A cameraperson tags along with one of Baseline’s two-seater submersibles as it’s lowered by crane into the water. The divers soon find what they’re looking for: an old wreck so overgrown with algae that none of its metal is visible underneath. We watch with fascination as the sub scans the ship with precision lasers to check for signs of rust and leakage.

We learn that this shipwreck is one of 573 that NOAA has examined. NOAA has determined that 36 of these would pose a serious environmental threat if their oil were to escape, and that five currently represent major threats. Once NOAA has identified a potentially dangerous wreck, it falls to the U.S. Coast Guard to do something about it. But NOAA marine researcher Lisa Symons laments that her reports and recommendations to the Coast Guard have gone unheeded, as the agency has yet to even investigate any of the five wrecks deemed by NOAA to be most dangerous. The narrator says this is because the Coast Guard is taking a “wait-and-see” approach, and then adds that this same situation seems to be playing out in some other countries as well. (Unfortunately, we don’t hear from the coastal authorities themselves in this film.)

Norway is a different story. Far from waiting for leaks to become imminent or active, the Norwegian Coastal Administration (NCA) continually monitors and removes oil from wrecks in Norwegian waters. The NCA has preemptively emptied the tanks of vessels that were still a decade or two away from springing leaks, says NCA official Hans Petter Mortensholm. The main reason for this preventative approach, explains Mortensholm, is the constant corrosion to which sunken ships are subjected, which eventually deteriorates them to the point where one can no longer physically operate on them. The filmmakers accompany Mortensholm and his colleagues as they travel to the remains of a German destroyer, and again as they use high-definition cameras to aerially survey the ocean for oil slicks.

In one of its more frightening segments, Black Tears lays out the harsh mathematics of underwater corrosion. We’re told that submerged steel structures lose between half a millimeter and two millimeters of thickness per decade, and that once they’ve lost three to 10 millimeters, they can start to come apart. Once that happens, it’s too late to drain their fuel tanks, because the metal is too weak to withstand the installation of drainage valves. Since the oldest of the WWII wrecks have been underwater for more than 80 years, we can assume that their metal has thinned by anywhere from four to 16 millimeters. Thus, it follows that the structural integrity of every single one of them is on borrowed time, if not already compromised, and that our chance to safely capture their fuel is in many cases gone and in many others rapidly dwindling.

Just as troubling as the corrosion issue is the extreme toxicity of the oil found in some of the wrecks. During the war, many German ships were fueled with a synthetic liquid made from coal. This is what Norwegian authorities found inside the German destroyer Z12 Erich Giese when they began removing its fuel. The oil was so pungent-smelling that Mortensholm and his colleagues felt compelled to have it tested at SINTEF’s Laboratory in Trondheim to analyze its toxicity. The SINTEF researchers found it to be the most toxic oil they’d ever studied. In one test, they exposed tiny sea crustaceans—which form a crucial link in the marine ecosystem—to a solution consisting of one part oil and 40 parts seawater. After four days, all of the crustaceans were either dead or paralyzed. One shudders to imagine the devastation that could result to marine life from tons of this oil bleeding into the ocean.

Hac has examined SINTEF’s tests on oil from the Erich Giese and has found their results to be similar to those of his tests on the Stuttgart’s oil. His conclusion is that Gdańsk Bay is being polluted by an ever-accumulating load of the same type of oil that killed or paralyzed every crustacean it came into contact with at SINTEF.

The film shows Hac consulting an old shipping register to figure out how much oil the Stuttgart was carrying when it went down. He discovers that it was just about to set sail when it sank, meaning it was almost surely full of fuel. In light of this information, Hac estimates a total of between 850 and 1,000 tons of fuel. That fuel has now spread over an area of seabed equivalent to more than 50 football fields, and some of it is moving quickly as it flows down an underwater slope. And as if all that weren’t enough, the Stuttgart is only one of 30 WWII wrecks that are currently either threatening the ecosystem of Gdańsk Bay or actively eating away at it.

The cost of cleaning up just the Stuttgart site—which would involve hauling up the ship and all the toxic soil around it—would run into the hundreds of millions of euros, says Hac. He adds that even if the Polish government did manage this feat, it would still be left with the problem of where to store the waste. The alternative would be to cover the site with vast quantities of sand, but Hac says this would also cost millions (and, of course, it would be only a temporary solution).

Black Tears ends with a montage in which each of the film’s experts speaks to the core of the challenge facing us with these old sunken wrecks. NOAA’s Symons sums it up best:

“It’s going to become a chronic process—and you can either deal with it in place, or you can deal with cleaning up oil on the beaches on a more routine basis.”

Let’s hope that more countries begin following Norway’s lead by making the first choice.

 

Teaser photo credit: Propeller amongst corals. By NOAA/Casserley – https://www.papahanaumokuakea.gov/maritime/hermes.html, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=69860514