Wednesday, June 6, 2001

USS Greeneville

Plan to raise
Ehime Maru emerges

By Gregg K. Kakesako

The Navy is moving closer to approving an environmental assessment that would allow a sunken Japanese fisheries training vessel to be towed to shallow waters near the Reef Runway late this summer where salvage operations can be held to search for the bodies of nine crewmen.

This comes after numerous meetings with state and federal officials about the Ehime Maru.

State Department of Land and Natural Resources and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officials say many of the major environmental concerns have been met. The Department of Land and Natural Resources has already ruled that no conservation use permit is needed to move the vessel to state waters.

One of the biggest issues was the possibility of an oil spill.

When the Ehime Maru left Honolulu Harbor just after noon Feb. 9, it was heavily laden with diesel fuel and lube oil and a crew and passenger manifest of 35.

The Navy estimates that Ehime Maru now weighs more than 700 tons.

Francis Oishi, aquatic biologist with the Aquatic Resources Division, said the best estimate is that about 20,000 gallons of diesel oil was lost when the nuclear submarine USS Greeneville collided with the Ehime Maru nine miles south of Diamond Head.

"That leaves about 45,000 gallons still on the ship," Oishi said.

Officials also believe that the Ehime Maru is still loaded with 1,200 gallons of lube oil.

But Oishi and Barbara Maxfield, of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, point out that diesel fuel is much lighter than crude oil and dissipates more rapidly.

Both the Navy and several contracted private firms have prepared contingency plans if the oil begins to seep from the submerged fishing vessel.

"Unlike oil spills that aren't planned for." Oishi said, "this time we can plan for such contingencies, and this makes for a pretty unique situation."

The 190-foot Ehime Maru sits on the bottom of the ocean 2,003 feet down.

The Navy's current $40 million proposal calls for a private contractor to slowly raise the vessel and drag it to about a mile off the Reef Runway in waters of about 100 feet.

Don Palawski, assistant field supervisor for the Fish and Wildlife Service, said he wanted assurances from the Navy that endangered sea birds would not be affected.

Federal wildlife officials are especially concerned about the impact on Newell's shearwater and dark-rumped petrels -- migratory birds that roost on land, but fly out to sea each day to feed.

The Ehime Maru would have to be towed about 16 miles after it had been rigged with metal lift plates.

The intent is to gradually raise the ship a few feet at a time until it is 15 feet off of the ocean bottom and then move it slowly.

The recovery operation is based on a feasibility study done by Smit Tak, a subsidiary of the Netherlands-based Smit International. That study was turned over to the Navy on March 8.

The Navy wants to rest the Ehime Maru on a sandy bottom and then send divers to search the ship for the bodies of nine people -- four 17-year-old boys, two of their teachers and three crewmen.

This $40 million undertaking would be the largest sunken object ever recovered by the Navy from such a depth.

Once the salvage operations have been completed, the Navy plans to take the Ehime Maru to a spot outside of the state's 12-mile boundary, sinking it in waters of at least 1,000 fathoms.

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