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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, June 10, 2001

Ehime Maru move seems likely

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By Mike Gordon
Advertiser Staff Writer

Federal marine wildlife officials say moving the fuel-laden Ehime Maru to shallow water presents few risks to the environment and they expect approval of the ambitious plan this week from the admiral in charge of the Navy's U.S. Pacific Fleet.

The $40 million move, which should start in September, will include escort ships with skimmers to suck any spilled fuel off the ocean surface.

The Ehime Maru is thought to still contain 40,000 gallons of the 65,000 gallons of diesel fuel it held when it was smashed by the submarine USS Greeneville on Feb. 9. The Japanese vessel, used to train high school students as commercial fishermen, now sits on the ocean floor in 2,000 feet of water about nine miles south of Diamond Head.

The bodies of nine people, including four teenage boys, are thought to be inside the ship. The purpose of moving the wreck is to bring it to a depth of about 115 feet so Navy divers can recover their remains.

Afterward, plans call for the Ehime Maru to be moved about 12 miles south of Barbers Point and released in 6,000 feet of water.

But moving the vessel cannot begin unless an environmental assessment concludes there will be no significant impact on the ocean. State and federal agencies have met with the Navy since March to discuss the move, including how to respond to fuel spills, possible hazards to the environment and where to place the Ehime Maru so divers can reach it safely.

"I don't think, other than a possible small spill, that there are any risks," said Michael Molina, environmental review program coordinator for the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.

"Even if there is a release of diesel fuel it is in open waters, where there is significant amount of mixing," he said. "And it is lighter than say, crude oil, so the time it would take to dissolve is much shorter and it probably wouldn't reach shore under normal wind conditions."

Molina said "a massive amount of work" has been done by the Navy to prepare the assessment with observers from state and federal agencies planning to participate once the move begins.

"All in all I feel pretty comfortable at the defenses they have taken," Molina said.

A major concern was where to put the Ehime Maru. Navy salvage divers want it placed on a site with a flat, sandy bottom that was not much deeper than 100 feet.

The Navy's preferred choice is about a mile south of the Honolulu airport's reef runway.

Marine biologist John Naughton, Pacific Islands environmental coordinator for the National Marine Fisheries Service, has dived to the area a dozen times in anticipation of the move. A bottom area of 1,300 square feet will be needed for the purpose, but only a portion will be used to rest the Ehime Maru and six huge anchors securing the salvage ship above.

Naughton said the agency's greatest fear was that setting the 750-ton Ehime Maru on the bottom would damage the coral reef.

The bottom, which was mapped with fathometers, has a large escarpment meandering through it, he said. Areas like that draw heavier populations of reef fish, lobsters and living coral. This prompted the Navy to move the planned shallow-water location 100 yards southwest.

Naughton joined others on a dive to the site Monday to ensure the final positioning would safely accommodate both ship and anchors.

"We are in a real good area in 115 feet of water," he said. "Everybody was kind of holding their breath that this would be an acceptable site. We didn't want a show-stopper."

Naughton calls the environmental assessment "an excellent document."

"We are really being so careful with this," he said. "I've never seen a project like this."

Neither has the Navy. Lifting a ship so heavy and from such great depths has never been done before.

The Navy contracted Smit International to plan the move. It will involve two lifting plates attached to the Ehime Maru by remote operated vehicles that will be guided from a surface ship, the Rockwater 2.

Cables from the Rockwater 2 will then be connected to the plates and gently raise the Ehime Maru off the ocean floor.

The rigging of the plates is expected to take 30 days and the 14-mile move to the reef runway site will take about three days.

Technicians on the Rockwater 2 will try to maintain a 15- to 30- foot buffer between the Ehime Maru and the bottom as they move the vessel to shallower water.

The Rockwater 2 will then use a satellite positioning system to locate the exact spot off the reef runway.

Once the vessel is on the bottom again, the grim task of recovering remains will go to 60 Navy divers from Pearl Harbor and six from the Navy's Ship Repair Facility in Yokosuka, Japan.

Working in teams over a month, the divers will carefully enter the Ehime Maru.

The vessel is considered an extremely dangerous place. The Navy estimates that the Ehime Maru, already hammered by the much larger Greeneville, slammed into the ocean floor at 65 mph.

Its interior could easily be a scene of mangled metal, loose objects and sharp edges.

The divers will be tethered to a surface vessel with air and communication coming through hoses and wires protected by thick canvas. However, they will wear a scuba bottle to use in an emergency.

They also will wear helmet-mounted cameras that will beam live video wherever they go; the Navy wants a record of the mission.

No more than 16 divers will be in the water at any one time.

The divers will spend a maximum of 100 minutes on the bottom before they begin a slow ascent to the surface and 54 minutes in a decompression chamber.

Part of the concern among Navy divers is the presence of diesel fuel that will require decontamination teams to clean the divers.

But they will have to move fast: Divers will have about three minutes to get out of their gear and cleaned and another 30 seconds to get into the decompression chamber.

Master Chief Dave Davidson, a Navy diver for 16 years, said wrecks are "inherently dangerous." Extra divers are needed to tend the hoses of the divers moving deeper into the wreck, he said.

Davidson, who will not be diving to the Ehime Maru, has gone on missions to retrieve remains.

"You notice the younger people who have to do it, it takes longer," he said. "It is a difficult task but one that needs to be done."

The final approval of the environmental study that launches the move and recovery rests with Adm. Thomas Fargo, commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet, said Navy spokesman Jon Yoshishige.

Fargo has a range of options. He could even reject any or all of the study or the recovery plan, mixing location and method as he sees fit, Yoshishige said.

The Navy has always said it would undertake the costly salvage if it was deemed technically and environmentally feasible, he said, and President Bush recently asked Congress for $36 million to help pay for the job.