Oil Removal Begins on 1952 Alaska Shipwreck

JUNEAU, Alaska, April 18, 2010 (ENS) – Specialized divers on Saturday began removing bunker fuel oil from a cruise ship that was wrecked in southeast Alaska 58 years ago.

The Unified Command has approved a detailed plan to “vacuum” oil that has leaked from the tanks of the passenger vessel Princess Kathleen and is now trapped within the ship.

Following that process, divers will begin removing oil from the fuel tanks. Divers have been assessing the wreck since February, and have identified between 14,000 and 34,000 gallons of heavy bunker oil in 10 of the ship’s tanks.

On September 7, 1952, the 369-foot passenger vessel SS Princess Kathleen grounded on Pt. Lena, just north of Juneau, after encountering bad weather while traveling between Juneau and Skagway, Alaska.

About 10 hours later during an incoming tide, she slipped off the rock and sank with an unknown quantity of fuel oil in her tanks.

Princess Kathleen slips beneath the waves. September 1952 (Photo courtesy Alaska DEC)

Since her sinking, periodic fuel releases and oil sheens have been observed near the wreck.

Now a popular recreational diving site, the vessel currently sits at an angle on its port side at a depth ranging from 52 feet at the bow to 134 feet at the stern.

Four additional tanks remain to be surveyed. Assessment of the four port wing tanks had been delayed because the vessel is lying on its port side preventing access to the tanks through the hull. Equipment has been ordered to remove silt covering the ship and restricting access to the port wing tanks.

The Unified Command decided to remove the oil before further deterioration of the ship resulted in a large oil spill.

Because bunker oil is very thick and heavy at low temperatures, the response contractor Global Diving & Salvage Inc. will use a method called hot-tapping to remove fuel from the Princess Kathleen.

A hot-water heat exchanger will be temporarily inserted into each tanks through an opening cut in the tank. The bunker oil is then heated directly around a suction hose installed in a second opening cut into the tank. The heated oil will be pumped from the tank and recirculated to the tank to heat all of the oil within. Once the oil is sufficiently warmed, it will be pumped into a barge moored above.

Protecting coastal areas and wildlife around Point Lena is a key priority, the U.S. Coast Guard said.

The Unified Command and state and federal resource agencies have identified environmentally sensitive areas around the wreck. They have pre-positioned containment boom and response equipment close to the sites as a precautionary measure against the event of a large release.

As an additional precautionary measure, the spill response cooperative Southeast Alaska Petroleum Resource Organization will have oil recovery vessels and crew onsite during all fuel recovery operations.

In addition to the 14,000 and 34,000 gallons of oil in the starboard tanks and whatever is contained in the port tanks, Global has estimated that between 1,500 and 3,000 gallons of oil has leaked from the fuel tanks and is trapped within the structure of the vessel.

Global divers installed temporary patches over exposed portholes to prevent any of this oil from escaping, and the divers will use suction wands to remove the trapped oil before detaching the patches and restoring the Princess Kathleen to its pre-assessment state.

Built by John Brown & Co. of Glasgow, Scotland, the Princess Kathleen was launched in 1924. Her maiden voyage was from Glasgow, Scotland to Vancouver, Canada via the Panama Canal. She served the busy Vancouver-Victoria-Seattle Triangle Route. Princess Kathleen was taken over by the Royal Navy on September 1, 1941 for use as troop transport in the Mediterranean.

After the war, she was returned by the Royal Navy to the Canadian Pacific Railroad. Princess Kathleen was refitted and put back in service on the Vancouver-Victoria-Seattle Triangle Route beginning June 22, 1947.

Two years after returning to service, Princess Kathleen was transferred to Canadian Pacific Railroad’s Vancouver-Alaska route.

On this route, at about three in the morning on September 7, 1952 she ran aground.

Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2010. All rights reserved.