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News | June 15, 2001

Ehime Maru Environmental Assessment Completed

By U.S. Pacific Fleet Public Affairs U.S. Pacific Fleet

A Navy Environmental Assessment, prepared in close coordination with federal and State of Hawaii agencies, concludes that moving Ehime Maru to shallow water will not result in significant environmental impacts. 

The Finding of No Significant Impact explains the Navy's proposal to attempt recovery of Ehime Maru's missing crew members, personal effects and selected parts of the ship. It also summarizes the potential impacts and how they will be overcome. 

With the determination the proposed action will have no significant impact on the environment, the Navy will now contract with Smit-Tak, a Dutch recovery company, and Crowley Maritime Corp., headquartered in Washington State, to design, engineer and execute the plan to lift Ehime Maru off the ocean floor, transport it to shallow water and relocate it to deep water upon completion of the recovery operation. 

Smit-Tak, the prime contractor for the deep-water rigging and lift to shallow water, has subcontracted with Halliburton Co., a Texas-based engineering and construction company, for the lease of Rockwater 2, a construction support vessel scheduled to arrive in Hawaii in July. 

In August, Rockwater 2 will lift Ehime Maru off the ocean floor at its current 2,000-foot depth with specially designed equipment and lifting mechanisms. Rockwater 2 will then transport Ehime Maru while suspended about 100 feet above the ocean floor to a location roughly a mile south of Honolulu International Airport's Reef Runway, where the water depth is approximately 115-feet, and then placed on the ocean bottom.

Before it is moved, Ehime Maru's deck will be cleared to the extent possible of cargo nets, fishing hooks and long lines, rafts and other obstacles that might impact the marine environment. After it is lifted and the entire vessel can be viewed, engineers will evaluate its condition to ensure it can safely and successfully be moved. 

Once Ehime Maru is stabilized at the shallow-water site, a team of U.S. Navy and U.S. Navy-trained Japanese divers will thoroughly search all safely accessible areas of the vessel to recover the missing crew members, other personal effects and certain unique characteristics of the ship, such as its nameplate and anchors. Japanese government officials have asked for unique parts of the ship for a possible memorial. The Navy will also try to remove to the maximum extent possible the diesel fuel, lubricating oil and other materials that could adversely affect the marine environment. 

Japanese Maritime Self Defense divers will observe and participate in the operations. 

The Ehime Maru's compartments and openings will be closed and sealed where feasible to prevent remaining materials from escaping. Using a heavy construction barge, Crowley Maritime will then transport the vessel to a final relocation site in the deep ocean. That site is more than 12 nautical miles south of Barbers Point -- roughly 16.5 nautical miles from the Reef Runway -- and in more than 6,000 feet of water. The ship cannot be left at the shallow-water site or returned to where it now lies because of state and federal requirements. 

The operation is scheduled for completion in October. 

Although the Navy is confident it will be able to successfully conduct the operation, the recovery is not without risks, and there is no guarantee of success. The structural damage to Ehime Maru may be greater than anticipated and thus pose a safety risk to recovery personnel or prevent the vessel to be moved intact. 

If it is not possible to safely lift and move the vessel, it will be left at its current location in 2,000 feet of water. 

According to the Environmental Assessment, "The greatest potential for effects to water quality, marine biology, and health and safety is from hazardous materials, such as diesel fuel or lubricating oil, escaping from Ehime Maru (while the ship is lifted from its current location, moved to shallow water, and during the shallow-water recovery operation)." 

The Navy is prepared in case diesel fuel or lubricating oil is released. It has developed extensive plans and procedures in coordination with state and federal emergency planning agencies to minimize the potential for environmental impacts. The Navy will have aircraft on scene to identify any fuel or oil in the water, and will also have absorbent booms, skimmers and oil dispersants at the site to contain and clean up any fuel or oil. State agencies and the U.S. Coast Guard will assist the Navy if needed. 

Significantly, the diesel fuel Ehime Maru carries is a light, refined petroleum product that quickly evaporates within hours or days. It is not the sticky, black oil carried by tankers. With the light diesel fuel, shoreline cleanup is usually not needed. Still, the Navy's intent is to contain any releases from impacting the shoreline. 

The Navy has been working closely with several state and federal agencies on the environmental assessment since mid-March. The support of those agencies and months of coordination with them have been a significant contributing factor to the development of the Navy's Environmental Assessment and its recovery plan. For example: 

The state Department of Land and Natural Resources, National Marine Fisheries Service and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service were instrumental in guiding the final selection of the shallow-water recovery site. 

The Fish and Wildlife Service will conduct pre- and post-recovery surveys of three areas on Oahu and one on Kauai to identify any birds potentially affected by oil. 

Fish and Wildlife Service and/or National Marine Fisheries Service observers will be stationed on the oil skimmer vessel to identify any birds, marine mammals or sea turtles that may come in contact with oil. 

Modeling by the National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration determined optimal sea-state and wind conditions for moving Ehime Maru. 

In addition to determining whether the proposed operation would have a significant impact on the environment, the environmental assessment also examined alternate methods of recovering the missing crew members. The Navy assembled a diverse and knowledgeable team of experts to evaluate the feasibility and effects of those methods and determined that a number of them were not feasible. 

Remotely operated vehicles (ROVs) cannot cut through obstructions or enter closed compartments to thoroughly search for the crew members. Additionally, mini-ROVs cannot lift and recover objects. 

Unprotected divers cannot work at the 2,000-foot depth. 

Lifting the ship and using divers while the ship was suspended in the open ocean was too dangerous. 

Lifting the ship out of the water increases the likelihood it would break apart, creating an unacceptable risk to the environment. 

The Navy, with the assistance of state and federal agencies, also conducted extensive surveys and analyses of potential shallow-water recovery sites to determine which sites warranted further study in the environmental assessment. 

Five sites were initially identified: One adjacent to the Reef Runway; a site off Ewa Beach west of the entrance to Pearl Harbor; a site on the Waianae Coast north of Barbers Point Deep Draft Harbor; and two sites off Molokai, one east-southeast of Laau Point and the other on the western edge of Penguin Bank. 

The Navy determined the Molokai sites would present an unacceptable risk to the recovery operation and the environment. Both sites would pose logistical challenges and hazardous sea states on crossing Kaiwi Channel. Both sites also are within the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary, and the risks to the environment were unacceptable. 

Following further evaluation of the remaining three sites -- including safety, security, environmental and logistics considerations -- the Navy identified the Reef Runway site as its preferred site.