The SS Jacob Luckenbach:
Solving the Mystery of the Winter Serial Killer
December 8, 2001 A U.S. Coast Guard helicopter skims over ocean waters of the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary, searching for a mystery oil spill that is forcing hundreds of oiled seabirds ashore from Point Reyes to Moss Landing. This day the helicopter crew expands its search farther offshore and discovers an isolated patch of oil seventeen miles southwest of the Golden Gate Bridge.
July 14, 1953, 4:38 a.m. The 468-foot freighter Jacob Luckenbach, laden with war supplies, steams westward out of San Francisco Bay into a black and foggy sea en route to Korea, just days before the end of the war. Suddenly, the Luckenbach shudders from the impact of a violent collision with an identical freighter, the SS Hawaiian Pilot. The crippled Hawaiian Pilot limps into San Francisco Bay, as the Luckenbach suffers massive flooding and slips beneath the waves just thirty minutes later. For decades, the Luckenbach lies silent in 180 feet of water, but time, currents, and aging metal conspire to release up to 450,000 gallons of fuel oil trapped in the ships lower holds.
Throughout the 1990s natural resource agencies were baffledby the mysterious oiling of large numbers of seabirds during fall/winter storm seasons. The oil-soaked birds suddenly appeared on central coast beaches, but no oil slicks could be found. Oiled feathers and sticky tar balls were put into cold storage, in hopes that the oil could someday be matched to a source. On Thanksgiving Day 2001 the oiling started all over again, but this time an aggressive investigation by a special task force of twenty agencies identified the culprit, using oil chemistry analysis and other advanced technological tools.
By early January lab tests concluded that the oil sampled from seabird feathers collected from November through December was from the same source. Further investigation matched the recent samples to oil samples from years past, signifying a single source for a decade of spills. Oil spill computer modeling, hindcasting, satellite imagery, and aerial survey data provided clues to the approximate location of the source, by then suspected to be a submerged shipwreck or a natural petroleum seep. Further chemical analysis eliminated natural seeps as a likely cause.
A search of four federal and state archaeological databases identified eight suspect shipwrecks from decades past, and a side-scan sonar search pinpointed the final resting place of the Jacob Luckenbach. When investigators arrived to inspect the site, they found oil floating on the water above the wreck. Fuel oil taken from the ships hold by underwater submersibles and divers matched the historical samples, proving conclusively that the Luckenbach was the source of the mystery spills.
Federal and state natural resource agencies decided that the future threat of oil releases from the shipwreck had to be eliminated. The Coast Guard funded and led development of a plan to pump the fifty-year-old oil from the Luckenbach into a barge, but the project would prove to be a monumental challenge, growing in cost from an initial estimate of $3 million to $19 million.
A massive 400-foot work barge was anchored over the Luckenbach, and divers lived in a continuously pressurized environment for days on end. The ship lay broken into three major sections, still loaded with thousands of tons of unstable cargo presenting a constant physical threat to divers in an already hostile environment. The oil had migrated into compartments throughout the hull and was often the consistency of molasses, requiring specially designed pumps, heating rods, and steam injection equipment to liquefy the oil for slow transport to the surface.
The projected two-week removal process stretched to four months as the team encountered one obstacle after another. By project end, 85,000 gallons of heavy oil had been removed. But throughout the project, the Luckenbach continued to leak oil, fouling more than 2,000 additional seabirds.
Ongoing research and advanced technology contributed greatly in solving this mystery. The response effort reconfirmed the value of archaeological assessment and data collection to sanctuary resource protection. Years of beach survey programs and sample collection/storage proved key to pinpointing the oil source, and interagency coordination and basic investigative techniques were essential to the success of the response effort.
The immediate threat from the Luckenbach has been removed, but an unknown amount of oil still remains trapped in the inner reaches of its hull. Even more ominous is the knowledge that many more Luckenbachs lie quietly on the seafloor within the sanctuary, such as the 440-foot oil tanker Montebello, sunk by a Japanese submarine in 900 feet of water off Point Piedras Blancas in 1941, with 4.1 million gallons of heavy Santa Maria crude oil on board. The challenge to the sanctuary and its partners is finding solutions and funding to remove these deadly cargoes before the sea does.
Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary
Cruise Ship Visits
|Three cruise ships visited the Sanctuary in 2002. photo Brad Damitz for NOAA/MBNMS
This year Monterey Bay hosted three visits from cruise ships in May, September, and October. This unusual activity was preceded by a small cruise ship visit in 1996. Not surprisingly, local citizens and organizations, including the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary, expressed concern about this activity. During the spring the sanctuary led collaborative efforts with local, state, and federal agencies; non-profit advocacy organizations; the local business and tourism industry; and the cruise line industry to try to identify potential environmental impacts as well as economic and educational opportunities associated with scheduled cruise ship stop-overs and to recommend solutions to minimize impacts and maximize opportunities.
Cruise ship visits attract attention because there are many related concerns as well as opportunities. Major concerns include discharges in the form of treated and untreated sewage; gray water from sinks, showers, galleys, and laundries; detergents from washing down decks; hazardous wastes from photography labs, dry cleaning, medical and dental wastes, and used paints; and solid waste. Other concerns include exotic species transfer via ballast water or hull transport, seafloor and habitat damage from anchoring, and marine mammal and bird harassment. Cruise ships offer many opportunities as well, including economic benefits to local communities and the potential to educate large numbers of visitors, as well as the cruise ship industry and crew, about the sanctuary program, our sanctuary, and protection of our natural resources.
|Sanctuary Regulations Relevant to Cruise Ships
Regulations prohibit discharges into the sanctuary but provide an exception for biodegradable effluent generated by a properly functioning marine sanitation device (MSD) approved in accordance with section 312 of the Federal Water Pollution Control Act. However, the standards set for MSD-generated sewage are significantly lower than those required by municipal treatment plants. Discharge of oily bilge water is not allowed.
No new municipal or private sewage outfalls may be constructed in the sanctuary. While this does not include regulation of cruise ship discharges, it does point to the intent of the regulations to restrict the location of large-scale sewage discharges.
As a result of the sanctuarys dialog with the cruise ship industry and local community concerns, all three cruise lines agreed in writing to a no-discharge policy, while operating within the sanctuary, in relation to their one-day port calls to Monterey Bay in 2002. They also agreed to provide records to support their commitments. These no-discharge agreements excluded cooling water but applied to all wastewater, ballast water, water discharged through oily water separators, and all forms of solid waste. The cruise lines also agreed to adhere to the International Maritime Organizations vessel traffic lanes while in transit, to anchor in a designated location to minimize seafloor impacts, and to work with sanctuary staff in providing education to their passengers.
As a result of the cruise ship industrys record of violations, independent monitoring would be desirable to verify compliance with regulations and voluntary agreements. Unfortunately, no model exists for continual tracking of cruise ship discharges, although the industry has agreed to turn over its discharge records for evaluation by government agencies. With thirteen cruise ship visits scheduled for next year (as of January 2003), the sanctuary will continue to work with all relevant parties to minimize environmental impacts associated with these visits.
Lisa de Marignac
Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary
The Agriculture and Rural Lands Plan
The rich agricultural lands of the central coast produce more than 200 types of crop that sustain a $3.5 billion industry, employing more than 60,000 people. Much of this abundant productivity happens within a stones throw of the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary. The direct link between land and sea means that water flowing down the watershed through agricultural lands can carry potential pollutants to the regions rivers, wetlands, and nearshore waters.
The Agriculture and Rural Lands Plan was developed in 1999 to address agricultural runoff in the form of sediment, nutrients, and persistent pesticides. At the heart of the plan are twenty-four strategies intended to protect and enhance the quality of water that drains into the sanctuary while sustaining the economic viability of agriculture. Some of the key partners, with regional representation, include the sanctuary, Coalition of Central Coast County Farm Bureaus (CCCCFB), Natural Resources Conservation Service (USDA), Resource Conservation Districts, University of California (UC) Cooperative Extension, and the Regional Water Quality Control Boards.
The CCCCFB, formed in 2000, is taking a leadership role in establishing watershed groups of farmers and ranchers to establish improved management practices, building on the many positive practices already underway in the industry. Other industry groups, agencies, and researchers are working to increase available tech-nical assistance and education, expand funding and economic incentives for conservation measures, coordinate and streamline the existing regulatory system in order to reduce barriers to implementing water quality protection practices, and improve management practices for rural roadways and public lands.
The agriculture plan has helped to direct considerable activity over the past two years. Ten farm bureau watershed groups have formed throughout the region, comprising 180 farmers and ranchers. Five of these groups have completed a Farm Water Quality course developed by UC Cooperative Extension. To assist these groups and other interested agricultural landowners and managers, many of the agricultural plan partners have hired technical staff, including an agronomist, water quality specialist, rural roads engineer, irrigated agriculture specialist, agricultural economics research assistant, and a hydrologist. These staff provide technical assistance for site-specific concerns and lead technical workshops. More than 900 farmers and ranchers have attended thirty-six workshops on specific conservation practices that protect water quality.
These collaborative strategies to protect water quality are showing concrete signs of success. For example, due to conservation practices that have been installed in the past two years, an estimated 258,875 tons of soil (equivalent to the area of a football field piled eleven stories high with eroded soil) per year have been prevented from eroding into the sanctuary.
Progress is being tracked by the sanctuary and through a monitoring and tracking program with the Regional Water Quality Control Boards. This industry-led regional effort can serve as a model for other areas working to protect water quality.
Agriculture Water Quality Coordinator