Silent Success: Oil removed from historic shipwreck

For more than 50 years lurking below the surface of the frigid Alaska waters lies the Canadian Pacific Railway ship Princess Kathleen, resting at an angle on its port side, reminding Alaskans of its presence by releasing fuel periodically tainting the surface with its sheen.

During foul weather September 7, 1952, the cruise ship previously used as a transport vessel during World War II, ran aground and eventually sank in the vicinity off Lena Point, Alaska, near Juneau with an unknown amount of bunker oil and other petroleum products remaining in its tanks.

An attempt to recover the oil was made years ago but due to the lack of technology, the attempt was unsuccessful.

During the early months of 2010, Capt. Melissa Bert, commander Coast Guard Sector Juneau, decided to establish a unified command with Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation after receiving in increase in reports of sheening coming from the Princess Kathleen wreck site.

The unified command came together in an attempt to remove the oil from the aged and presumably fragile tanks of the Princess Kathleen.

The Princess Kathleen was already deemed a risk of pollution prior to witnessing significant environmental impact. The unified command took proactive actions to proceed with a lightering operation before shorelines or wildlife became covered in 50-year-old bunker oil.

“Upon coming up with a solid plan we decided to take time into our own hands and removal of the oil seemed to be the most logical action,” said Bert. “Tackling a potential threat prior to it coming to fruition eliminates the possibility of a major disaster, is cost effective and protects both people and the environment.”

The Coast Guard along with ADEC, Global Diving and Salvage and other contracted agencies worked tirelessly for four months putting in 24-hour days with the intentions to finish the removal of oil in the safest and most effective manner.

However, as no good plan goes without a hitch, there were obstacles that the unified command and on-scene contracted workers had to battle through.

In Alaska the weather is often unpredictable and thus challenging. With the vast distance between Alaska and the Continental U.S., it becomes a daunting task when mission essential equipment from Seattle is delayed by inconvenient weather impeding barge transit.

“Due to the inclement weather we probably lost about 20 days of work that would have otherwise expedited the oil removal process,” said Cmdr. Kurt Clarke, Coast Guard Sector Juneau chief of response.

The unified command was able to lapse all obstacles and with the bad also came the good.

Advanced technology allowed the unified command to address the historic problem that had been plaguing the community of Juneau for so long.

The use of technologies such as remote operated vehicles permitted the unified command the luxury of being able to complete a visual inspection of the hull, structural integrity and underwater environment without putting divers at risk.

“The remote operated vehicles allowed for us to get a visual of the deteriorating tanks and pipes to better strategize how we were going to remove the oil without taking the risk of sending our divers into unknown spaces,” said Kerry Walsh, casualty response project manager for Global Diving and Salvage. “The importance for the removal of oil was extremely high due to the condition of the tanks, anything from a recreational diver to an earthquake could have caused the imbalance needed to rupture the pipes resulting in a major oil release.”

Based on the condition of the vessel upon initial survey, there was a significant amount of oil that was released from the tanks, but still contained within the vessel’s hull. From this finding along with the rivets quickly deteriorating, it was determined that it was only a matter of time before considerable releases of oil would suffocate the pristine coastline.

“We caught this just in time,” said Scot Tiernan, state on-scene coordinator.

The unified command was able to access each tank of the Princess Kathleen and pump the contents into a tank barge floating above the Princess Kathleen. In this topside tank, the product and waste water were heated and re-circulated back to the Princess Kathleen’s tank. This process allowed an even and gradual heating of the product and permitted for a higher pumping rate once heated.

Once the closed system was properly heated to approximately 120 degrees, the use of a skimmer was employed in the topside tank. This allowed for the recovery of nearly pure oil from the tank and significantly reduced the amount of wasted water generated.

After approximately four months of round the clock work, the Coast Guard and State of Alaska’s proactive approach eliminated the inevitable pollution risk of an estimated 110,000 gallons of extremely toxic and environmentally destructive bunker C, heavy oil. This was all accomplished without a significant release or negative impact to the environment or wildlife.

Additionally, the wreck was returned to a condition that closely matches the original condition of the wreck upon the start of the project and is available for continued use by recreational divers and historians alike.

Overall the monetary cost for removing the oil from the Princess Kathleen was approximately $12 million but with major oil cases such as the Cosco Busan in San Francisco Bay looming in our history, it proves how economical it is to take care of the oil problem prior to a release.

On November 7, 2007, the cargo vessel Cosco Busan hit the San Francisco Bay Bridge spilling approximately 58,000 gallons of medium grade fuel oil seriously impacting wildlife by killing thousands of birds, polluting the pacific shore and costing more than $100 million to clean up.

With the oil removed from the Princess Kathleen reaching almost three times the amount spilled by the Cosco Busan, it’s unimaginable what kind of impact a spill would have had on the pristine and environmentally sound Alaskan waters not to mention the cost.

“The preventative cost of cleaning the Princess Kathleen was less than 10 percent of what it would have been if a catastrophic release had occurred,” said Rear Adm. Christopher Colvin, Coast Guard 17th District commander. “Considering the alternatives, the cleanup of the Princess Kathleen was remarkable and an extremely cost-effective success.”

The team work amongst all involved was pertinent to the mission.

“The unified command worked well together ensuring everyone was engaged and on the same page further validating the success of the mission,” said Walsh.

The Princess Kathleen now lays dormant still more than 50-feet below the surface and still at an angle on its port side, only now safer.

“The unified commands hard work and proactive approach in removing the oil from the Princess Kathleen serves as a model for future salvage plans and should encourage others to take preventative measures,” said Bert.

With more than 7,000 sunken vessels barricading the United States coastal waters boasting approximately 180 million gallons of oil still intact within their corroded hulls the community of Juneau can rest assured the Princess Kathleen no longer serves the threat of a potential hazard caused by an oil release.

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