Pacific World War II Wrecks Pose Risk of Toxic Leaks

December 10, 2008

In the Pacific Ocean, amid a chain of tiny islands that make up the Federated States of Micronesia, more than 50 World War II shipwrecks lie below the placid surface of the 40-mile-wide Chuuk (Truk) Lagoon.

Encased in coral, host to abundant sea life, and a popular destination for scuba-loving tourists, these tankers, destroyers, and other vessels also contain noxious cargo: thousands of barrels of oil and other fuels, and sometimes chemicals and unexploded ordnance.

(See more photos.)

Chuuk's so-called Ghost Fleet includes dozens of Japanese ships, many of which were destroyed during a three-day attack by Allied forces in February 1944.

For decades, scientists and governments have said it was best to leave these shipwrecks alone.

Cleanup is laborious, expensive, and can cause its own problems if handled incorrectly, releasing oil or other pollutants into ocean waters.

Most of the ships also double as underwater military graves, sacred sites that no one wants to violate.

But concern about corrosion—which occurs faster in warm water—is prompting increased investigation of Chuuk's aging Ghost Fleet and roughly 3,700 other World War II ships from at least four different countries languishing throughout the Pacific.

A number of these sunken wrecks lie in the waters around Papua New Guinea and the Republic of Palau, a Micronesian archipelago to the west of Chuuk.

And so many Allied and Japanese ships sank in a strait near the Solomon Islands during the 1942-1943 Battle of Guadalcanal that it became known as Iron Bottom Sound.

Some environmentalists worry that these wrecks—which are also vulnerable to improper anchoring, dynamite fishing, and storms—pose potential hazards to marine life, beaches, mangroves that protect coastlines, and local economies.

Researchers say that the ships, constructed of iron and steel and already submerged for 60-plus years, may be reaching a tipping point and all of them could break down—and leak—at around the same time.

Continued on Next Page >>


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