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Salvage team overcomes challenges to remove Puerto Rico mystery ship

Jan 23, 2013 12:45 PM
A salvage crew breaks away a section in preparation for final removal.

Photos courtesy U.S. Coast Guard

A salvage crew breaks away a section in preparation for final removal.

It was the recipe for a salvage nightmare: a grounded freighter with a compromised hull, thousands of gallons of fuel, tons of oil-soaked cargo, a pair of tropical storms, and endangered coral and sea turtles — all on an uninhabited Caribbean island more than 40 miles from the nearest port.

The result? “It was a model job, if you will, given the problems we dealt with,” said Todd Duke, project manager for Florida-based Resolve Marine Group, which handled the removal of the 202-foot Jireh from Puerto Rico’s Mona Island.

What started as a recovery operation when Jireh ran aground June 21, 2012, soon became a dismantling job. It was determined the freighter could not be removed intact from the 22-square-mile ecological reserve. That led to a nearly four-month-long response by Resolve, the U.S. Coast Guard and governmental agencies. It culminated Oct. 6 when the last sections of Jireh’s 600-ton hull were taken to Mayagüez, Puerto Rico, for recycling.

Boom surrounds the grounded Jireh.

Jireh was believed to be headed from Haiti to St. Martin with 84 passengers and crew when it struck a reef on the south shore of Mona Island, according to Capt. Drew Pearson, commander of Coast Guard Sector San Juan. The freighter was carrying an array of cargo including animal feed, water bottles, energy drinks, mangoes and cinder blocks.

“It was not a typical venture of a ship engaging in trade. It was a little bit sketchy,” said Pearson, who also served as the federal on-site coordinator for the response effort. “We do not have complete clarity of the nature of those 84 people who were brought ashore. Some were identified as crewmembers, others were identified as passengers, some may have been considered migrants looking for transport to the French island of Martinique. We didn’t do a full marine casualty investigation.”

In interviews with the Coast Guard, the ship’s master said Jireh had mechanical and navigational problems that caused it to strike the reef. Pearson said the freighter also had “significant structural deficiencies” and had not been inspected since the 1990s, at least not in a U.S. port. He said it was flying a Honduran flag but may not have been recognized by a flag state.

“After the response, we uncovered that there was a concrete patch laid in the cargo compartment, so there was a pretty strong belief that the condition of the hull itself may have been part of the reason why it ended up on Mona,” Pearson said. “It may have started to come apart while they were sailing.”

No fuel was spilled during the grounding, but containment booms were placed around Jireh as a precaution as the threat to the ecosystem was assessed. Duke said the initial plan was to lighten the freighter, refloat it and pull it away from the island, but the poor condition of the ship and the damage it sustained during the grounding eliminated that option. Instead, it was cut into pieces and lifted from the reef.

Responders began by removing 2,000 gallons of diesel fuel from the ship, along with more than 5,000 gallons of oily water and 600 tons of oiled cargo. The process was made more difficult by the fact that no one knew exactly what the freighter was carrying, Duke said.

“There was some contraband found on board, and at one time the cargo-hold water turned rancid and was producing hydrogen sulfide,” he said. “It was one problem after another.”

Resolve brought in its 96-foot supply vessel Lana Rose for the salvage, along with its 165-foot RMG 400 deck barge. The company subcontracted for two vessels: Caribe Lifter, a 110-foot crane barge, and the 66-foot tug Miss Niz.

Due to the remote location, Duke said Resolve’s 30 project personnel lived on the vessels and in small cabins on the island.

“The island has a small ranger station and people go out there and camp on occasion, but by and large there are just a few biologists and rangers out there,” he said. “Everything has to be brought in by boat and there is no electricity. That made the job that much harder.”

Duke said the biggest challenge Resolve faced was protecting the environment, including endangered coral and the endangered hawksbill turtle. Dive teams from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) removed vulnerable coral in the grounding area, and personnel from Puerto Rico’s Department of Natural and Environmental Resources and Environmental Quality Board were on hand to help assess and minimize risks.

NOAA divers determined that Jireh’s impact caused minimal damage to the reef, but more than 1,000 corals were removed and transplanted as a precaution. Anchors and cables from the vessels and booms used in the salvage had to be carefully placed to prevent additional damage.

“We changed a lot of our techniques and tactics because of how environmentally sensitive the area was,” Duke said. “If there was coral in the way, we would bring a NOAA diver out and have the coral transplanted. We spent a lot of time moving coral around.”

The operation was complicated by the weather, including Tropical Storms Ernesto and Isaac, which caused 20-foot swells and made keeping anchors in place an adventure. Duke said the Resolve team was idled for about 30 days because of the conditions.

“It seemed like just about the time we were getting into a good steady rhythm and getting a good amount of work accomplished, here comes another tropical storm,” he said. “You’d have to pull out, get out of your anchor spread, go into port and hide from the storm. Setting anchors, resetting anchors and getting in and out of anchor spreads is a two- or three-day operation, no matter where you are in the world. The Mona Pass is also notoriously rough, so crane operations were at times very tricky because of the amount of ocean swell.”

Another complication involved the hawksbill turtle. The endangered species digs its nests on Mona Island, and the salvage operation took place during peak nesting season. Bright lights can disorient the turtles and cause them to abort their nesting, so the barges and tugs had to dim their lights at night.

“We actually had some turtle hatchlings, so that made things a little more difficult, just trying to keep an eye out for those guys and make sure we didn’t do any damage there,” Duke said.

Pearson said the owner of Jireh could not be determined, so the cost of the operation was borne by the Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund. Contributions to the fund are made through a tax paid by oil companies and fines levied for violations of the Oil Pollution Act of 1990.

Duke said that while the technical demands of the project weren’t out of the ordinary, facing and overcoming the logistical challenges made it noteworthy.

“Nobody got hurt, the environment was protected and at the end of the day it was a very successful operation,” he said. “You can’t even tell the vessel was ever there.”

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