There were immediate things to worry about last month when the ill-steered Costa Concordia ran aground near the small Italian village of Giglio. Could the passengers escape before their cabins were submerged? Would valuable components be saved?
With those questions answered – and not with great optimism; 17 people have been confirmed dead from the disaster – a new question sets in, and will linger for a long time. What will happen to the ship, and all the oil inside?
The implications are frightening to the people of Giglio, the small town that rarely sees much excitement, save for the occasional cruise ship of tourists that pump the local economy. There are still half a million gallons of fuel on the ship, a viscous oil that would pummel the local fishery and debilitate the local port. That, plus 75 problems of acetylene (an alkyne hydrocarbon), 1,000 pounds of grease, 650 pounds of paint, one ton of sodium hypochlorite (bleach). Not to mention all the mattresses, deck furniture and knick knacks aboard. All combined makes a pretty toxic stew.
The Italian Navy knows this, and has so far assigned a team of 70 to recover the ship’s dangerous chemicals before they spill into the water. What the Navy is trying to do is reminiscent of 2010’s oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico: drill a hole in the ship’s hill, attach a series of tubes, and pump the oil to a barge on the surface. The infrastructure is in place, but heavy winds and rain have deterred the effort.
Pending that actually works, the longer term question is, what about the ship itself? The Navy plans a tedious operation to dismantle and remove the entire structure, but that process will take up to 10 months, or likely longer if the weather doesn’t cooperate.
Ships, or parts of ships, can sometimes be helpful to ocean wildlife. They quickly become the skeleton of new coral reefs, and let new life thrive. In the past, the U.S. Navy has deliberately sunk oil ships for that very purpose. But that’s only after they’ve been thoroughly cleaned. A structure like the Costa Concordia, perched chock full of its dirt and toxins, would do a lot more bad than good.