On Monday September 28, 2020, Coastal Resource Manager Alex Fogg was contacted by local dive operator Nancy Birchett of ScubaTech Northwest Florida.
ScubaTech was completing their first offshore dive trip since Hurricane Sally when Birchett reported that the popular Thomas Heyward Liberty Ship artificial reef had experienced some damage from the strong currents and high seas associated with the storm.
Ms. Birchett also observed an oil sheen on the surface and her dive masters reported a black “oil-like” substance flowing from the deck of the Thomas Heyward.
- The Thomas Heyward Liberty Ship is located approximately 6.65nm southwest of Destin East Pass.
Following the report, Fogg conducted an inspection with the goal of collecting samples of any observed oil-like substance. When he arrived at the Liberty ship he observed an oil sheen with small black droplets in a 100ft x 100ft area above the bow of the ship.
- A two-liter sample of surface water was collected in the center of the observed sheen. A dive was conducted by Okaloosa County staff to determine what the source of the leak was and to assess damage from Hurricane Sally.
Oil-like droplets were only observed in the water column on the bow section of the vessel and after closer inspection, two holes in the deck of the vessel were identified as the source of the leak. The area was monitored for approximately ten minutes and an oil-like substance was observed slowly seeping from the openings.
- Additionally, there was significant damage to the port side bow as the hull collapsed inward which may have disrupted once sealed bilge or oil tank material.
“We don’t know how much oil is in the vessel, but it’s been leaking for about a year now,” said Fogg. “It’s not a rapid leak, but it’s enough that divers and fishermen notice it. The State of Florida has been working with the Coast Guard to try and figure out a way to alleviate the issue by potentially going down there and pumping the rest of the oil out of the Liberty ship to prevent it from leaking into the environment.”
Fogg says that reports are coming in on pretty much a weekly basis, especially after stretches of good weather when people are out there fishing and diving on it.
The Thomas Hayward Liberty Ship was deployed as an artificial reef in April of 1977. Back then, the stringent regulatory rules that Fogg and his team have to abide by now were not in place, as far as making sure vessels and reefs are clean prior to putting them in the water.
- The deployment of Liberty ships was a collaboration between the State of Florida and the military where they deployed Liberty ships across the Northern Gulf of Mexico and even over to the east coast.
And because the 400+ foot vessel is roughly 7 miles from Destin’s east pass, it’s a very popular fishing and diving site.
This situation isn’t unique to Destin. A very similar scenario actually happened in Pensacola about 15 years ago. According to Fogg, one of the Liberty ships in the Pensacola area was leaking oil and authorities went and pumped it out. Fogg says he thinks there might be a similar situation that can happen with the Thomas Heyward.
Because it was the 1970s, the information on the project is very spotty, and there is not much information about how it was cleaned. Authorities don’t know if the residual fuel oil was actually removed from the vessel or was it just sealed off in the hopes that it would stay sealed for the rest of its life.
Hearing of an oil leak, many people might start imagining the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, where there’s just a geyser of oil coming out of the ground. That’s not the case in this situation.
- “This is a very slow leak with very viscous liquid coming from the deck of the Liberty ship,” continued Fogg.
As for any environmental implications that have come from the leak over the past year, Fogg says that it is hard to relate any sort of environmental impacts to an incident like this.
“The site of the leak is actually home to a lot of fish and from the numerous investigation dives that we’ve done and I have not seen any impacts to the fish,” he said. “I can’t say for sure but with the amount of oil that’s leaking, I wouldn’t suspect there’s going to be any major environmental impacts.“
Any sort of action to pump the remaining fuel oil from the Liberty ship will be handled by the U.S. Coast Guard and the State of Florida.
As of this writing, there is no timeline on the removal of the residual oil, but the Coastal Resource Team will continue to monitor the leak and provide updates as they get them.