World War II shipwreck off Long Island leaking oil

May 9, 2019

An initial assessment of a 77-year-old shipwreck off the coast of Long Island has found that the sunken tanker is leaking oil through two, close-together pinpoint leaks.

The Coast Guard has contracted with Florida-based salvage company Resolve Marine Group to conduct a full assessment of the remaining oil aboard the British tanker Coimbra, which was hit by two torpedoes during World War II and now sits in 185 feet of water about 30 miles southeast of Shinnecock, N.Y.

“Our aim is to safely do these assessments so that we can determine the highest probability of where the oil product is located so then we can take appropriate reactions to reduce any potential threat to the environment,” said Capt. Kevin Reed, commander of Coast Guard Sector Long Island Sound.

“Our top priorities are safety of the public and protection of the marine environment,” he said.

Starting in 2015, the Coast Guard received reports from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration of oil sheens near the wreck.

The assessment, which is expected to last until the end of May, involved divers, remote-operated underwater vehicles, imaging sonars and specialized salvage drills, which are being used to tap the ship’s oil tanks and insert probes and sensors to determine whether there’s oil inside and get an estimate of how much. Once the assessment is done, the team will make a plan for removing the oil on board.

Aaron Jozsef, deputy director of projects for Resolve Marine, said six main body tanks, which appear to be intact, were measured. Of them, five were identified as possibly having oil in bulk — essentially a large enough amount that would require removal, he said.

Complicating efforts is that the Coimbra, which was 423 feet long, is broken into three parts and is resting on its starboard side on the sea floor.

The Coimbra was traveling east following the southern shore of Long Island en route to Halifax, Nova Scotia, from Bayonne, N.J., when it was hit by a G7e torpedo from a German U-boat at 9:41 p.m. on Jan. 15, 1942. The tanker was carrying about 2.7 million gallons of lubricating oil.

“A huge towering explosion lit up the night sky and the cargo of oil quickly caught fire and spread across the water. Residents from the Hamptons on Long Island could see the fire at sea 27 miles away and alerted the authorities,” reads the casualty narrative for the Coimbra.

Less than 20 minutes later, the Coimbra was struck by a second torpedo.

The inspection of the wreck was supposed to happen last year but was delayed twice — first due to the finalizing of contracts with Resolve Marine, and then due to conditions associated with Hurricane Chris, which raised safety concerns for the operation.

The Coast Guard Atlantic Strike Team, New York Department of Environmental Conservation, Coast Guard District One Response Advisory Team, Navy Supervisor of Salvage and Diving, NOAA, Coast Guard Headquarters Office of Environmental Management, and Coast Guard Salvage Engineering Response Team are providing consultation.