Costa Rushes to Remove Fuel, Avoid Spill From Stricken Ship

The Costa Concordia
The Costa Concordia, after the cruise ship ran aground off the Isola del Giglio in Italy. Photographer: Filippo Monteforte/AFP/Getty Images

Carnival Corp.’s Italian unit is rushing to prevent its crippled cruise liner from spewing 2,400 tons of fuel into Europe’s biggest marine park, as the search continues for 29 missing passengers and crew members.

Smit Salvage, a unit of Royal Boskalis Westminster NV, contracted by Costa Crociere SpA, owner of the stricken Costa Concordia, is ready to begin inspecting the ship as soon as tomorrow. The company will need two to four weeks to take the fuel off the ship, executives said on a conference call today.

“The vessel is stable and we feel confident that removal can be done in a fairly rapid way,” Kees van Essen, Smit’s manager of operations, said during the call. There have been no leaks so far and salvage operations don’t increase the chance of leaks, he said.

Time is critical to removing the more than 500,000 gallons of fuel as deteriorating weather and shifts in the boat’s position increase the risk of a spill. Search and rescue operations had to be suspended for four hours yesterday after the Costa Concordia moved position in rising seas off the Italian island of Giglio.

Weather Risk

“Ill weather is the greatest risk to the environment right now because high waves might move or break the ship causing fuel to leak,” Alessandro Gianni, campaign director of Greenpeace Italy operations, said in a phone interview. “Containment barriers that have been placed around the ship don’t work in high waves.”

Weather conditions since the accident have been calm, though a storm front is forecast to move into the area on Thursday.

Smit managers said they will have to remove 2,400 tons of fuel from the ship, as well as 200 tons of oil and a small amount of lubricants and other substances.

The ship struck a reef off the island of Giglio on Jan. 13 after the captain overrode a pre-programmed route to sail close to the island, hours after the vessel left a port near Rome with 4,000 passengers and crew for a Mediterranean cruise. Six people are confirmed dead and rescue workers are still searching for survivors in the partially submerged cruise liner. Italy’s foreign ministry said today that 14 Germans, six Italians, four French, one Indian, one Peruvian, one Hungarian and two U.S. States citizens are among the missing.

Evacuation Order

The captain, who was arrested for abandoning the ship, didn’t give the evacuation order until just before the Costa Concordia began listing, making it impossible to lower many of the lifeboats. Video released last night of the rescue operation showed hundreds of passengers clamoring along the side of the ship to reach ladders that led down to water where they were loaded onto boats that had been sent out to the ship.

The ship is lying on its side off Giglio, an island of 1,500 inhabitants in winter who survive on fishing and tourism, located about 14 miles from the Tuscan coast. Giglio lies within the “Santuario dei Cetacei,” an area of roughly 87,500 square kilometers that in 1999 was declared by the governments of France, Italy and Monaco a sanctuary for marine mammals such as dolphins and whales.

‘Sensitive Area’

“This is a particularly sensitive area of great environmental value and it just makes you wonder why on earth such large ships are allowed to go through there,” said Giuseppe Notarbartolo, regional coordinator for the Mediterranean for the International Union for Conservation of Nature. “Fuel spills can cause decade-long damage on local animal and plant populations and must be avoided.”

The ship’s 17 fuel tanks are double hulled for added protection, Pier Luigi Foschi, chairman of Costa Crociere said during a press conference yesterday in Genoa. Environmental damage “is our main concern after human lives,” Foschi said. “I hope the fuel can be taken off the ship soon.”

The heavy fuel used to power the ship becomes semi-solid when cooled, making it harder to pump unless it is re-heated or diluted. Smit will use special equipment to heat and then pump out the fuel from tanks that are both above and below water at this time.

“We have removed fuel in much more challenging conditions than this case where the waters are shallow,” van Essen said.

Korean Ship

Smit used a similar technique in June of last year to remove fuel from a tanker that has been sitting off the coast of South Korea for more than 30 years. The company employed a tank heating system to remove about 500 tons of oil from the tanker Kyung Shin, which was at a depth of about 100 meters, according to the Smit website.

The Costa Concordia tanks were full, having refueled at Civitavecchia near Rome hours before hitting the reef. While the ship is lying in about 60 feet of water, rescue workers are concerned that currents and waves could push it off an undersea ledge and in into deeper water.

The environmental risk for Giglio “is extremely high,” Italy’s environment Minister Corrado Clini said yesterday. The “the entire archipelago” may be at threat “depending on how the sea moves.”

Prime Minister Mario Monti’s government plans to declare a state of emergency for the area, news agency Ansa quoted Clini as saying yesterday

“We are very nervous right now and concerned about the future,” said Luca Milani, 38, who owns a building company on the island. “I was born here, I live here, I work here, this place is my life and all I have. Now there is a risk of an environmental catastrophe and that would be the end for us.

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