The Costa Concordia cruise ship ran aground off the coast of Italy almost a week ago. As the search for survivors, sadly, winds down, the efforts to pump the large reserves of fuel and oil off of the ship ramp up.
The ship is carrying around 2,400 metric tons of diesel fuel and lubricating oil, an amount comparable to a small oil tanker. The fuel tanks appear to be intact currently, but as the ship continues to lie half-submerged in uncertain ocean waters, there is no telling what could change, or when.
The method being used to remove the fuel is a process referred to as “hot tapping.”
Since the oil and fuel are so thick, they must be heated up before being removed. This is accomplished by pumping steam into the storage tanks to make the oil or fuel more liquid. They can then be siphoned off into a waiting tanker as sea water is pumped in to maintain the ship’s precarious balance.
This will need to be done for 13 external fuel tanks and 10 internal tanks.
Corrado Clini, Environment Minister of Italy, said it would take about a month to extract the fuel for the external tanks but had no estimate on the internal tanks, which are much harder to access.
Clini also said if the ship does sink deeper, it would be better for the fuel tanks to rupture and for the fuel to float to the top of the ocean.
While this would look scary, it would make the fuel easy to see and recover. If the fuel leaks out slowly it would take years to clean up and create more long term damage.
No matter where in the ocean an oil/fuel spill occurs or has the potential to occur it is bad news for the environment. But in this case, a spill would affect not only the environment, but the livelihoods of many nearby residents.
The Costa Concordia ran aground off of Giglio Island, a renowned diving site and home to diverse plant and animal species. Tourism is the number one industry in Giglio, and residents and business owners are rightfully concerned that the cleanup proceeds quickly and cleanly.
Massimiliano Botti, owner of a restaurant in Giglio said, “If there is a massive fuel spill, we might as well close everything down, throw away the key and come back in 10 years.”
It has yet to be decided what will be done with the ship itself once all of the fuel has been removed. It is likely that it will be cut up and hauled away for scrap—a process that will adversely affect the marine environment no matter how carefully it is done.
While there are many unanswered questions—how did this happen?, who is responsible?, what are the long-term ramifications?—what is certain is that this is a tragedy, one that could have been much worse, but also one that didn’t need to happen at all.
Hopefully the cleanup will go as quickly and smoothly as possible, justice will be served where it is due and the plants and animals that live around Giglio Island will be impacted as little as possible.