Divers collect data on Point Lena shipwreck

Decision about how to handle oil leaks from Princess Kathleen expected in days

Posted: Friday, March 19, 2010

Good scuba conditions this week allowed a dive crew to get inside the SS Princess Kathleen, the vessel that sank off Point Lena in 1952 now leaking oil into the ocean.

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Michael Penn / Juneau Empire
Michael Penn / Juneau Empire

The U.S. Coast Guard and state Department of Environmental Conservation expect to review the divers' findings, including video footage and computer-generated models of the ship and its fuel tanks, and make a decision in the next few days about how to proceed.

A Global Divers crew arrived at the beginning of March and experienced some weather delays but overall, the nine divers have been able to spend ample time in the water, said incident commander Jim Butler.

Global Divers, based in Seattle with a regional office in Anchorage, is contracted to deal with the problem.

The divers have seen oil weeping from rivets in the Kathleen's hull plate as well as from piping inside the engine room, Butler said. They've observed oil in the upper-deck ceiling and sheen coming up from the bottom.

"It's big globs of peanut-butter kind of stuff," Butler said, describing the oil viscosity.

The divers identified a route into the boiler room and looked around for fuel tank locations. They will use ultrasound to determine the hull's thickness and see if it is corroded, and drill the tanks to measure remaining fuel volume.

The hull appears intact but the ship's superstructure is broken with its exterior covered in barnacles and rot. Much of the upper steel has corroded away.

It is not yet known how much oil the Kathleen might still hold, but it could be around 155,000 gallons.

Project costs will be covered by the federal Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund, said Capt. Melissa Bert, federal on-scene coordinator with the U.S. Coast Guard. The fund was created by the Oil Pollution Act passed after the Exxon Valdez grounding in Prince William Sound.

Increased reports of oil sheen seen in waters off the Point Lena prompted the recent action on the Kathleen.

The reports could be due to additional people in the area since the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration lab facility opened on the point a few years ago.

But also probable is that the Kathleen is starting to come apart, said DEC's state on-scene coordinator Scot Tiernan.

"The oil is going to come out," he said. "The best thing to do is get it out under a controlled situation."

The bunker oil - thick, viscous fluid like molasses chilled in a jar - is more difficult to remove than thinner oils like diesel.

If the oil is removed, dive teams will insert hoses into holes drilled into the tanks and the oil will be drawn out. Because of its viscosity, it will have to be heated before it can flow.

Built in 1925, the 369-foot passenger steamship was built for the Canadian Pacific Railroad. Like the Exxon Valdez, it did not have a protective shell, or double hull, to prevent oil from leaking freely from tanks.

Interest in oil recovery from shipwrecks has increased over the past few years, with an estimated 8,000 ships sitting on ocean bottoms around the world, Tiernan said. The most well-known is perhaps the U.S.S. Arizona in Pearl Harbor.

• Contact reporter Kim Marquis at 523-2279 or kim.marquis@juneauempire.com.

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