Shipwreck off Florida coast could pose oil pollution threat

A federal report says a ship sunk in the Gulf of Mexico off the Florida Keys is among more than a dozen wrecks nationwide that could pose a serious oil pollution threat.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration report was issued to the Coast Guard last week. It lists the Joseph M. Cudahy wreck northwest of Key West among 17 sunken ships recommended for further assessment.

Officials at NOAA and the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary plan to survey the wreck in June with autonomous underwater vehicles.

"This report is the most comprehensive assessment to date of the potential oil pollution threats from shipwrecks in U.S. waters," said Lisa Symons, resource protection coordinator for NOAA's Office of National Marine Sanctuaries. "Now that we have analyzed this data, the Coast Guard will be able to evaluate NOAA's recommendations and determine the most appropriate response to potential threats."

The Cudahy was carrying 78, 000 barrels of oil, and local divers and boaters know it as the "oil wreck" due to a sheen routinely observed above it for more than 60 years, according to the report.

Symons tells The Key West Citizen that divers have reported finding oil residue on the ship's surface.

The Cudahy was an unarmed oil tanker that was torpedoed by a German U-boat and sunk during World War II as it traveled from Texas to Pennsylvania. Three officers and 24 crewmen died.

The nearly upside-down wreck rests in about 150 feet of water, according to the NOAA report.

Several old ships have been intentionally sunk in the Keys marine sanctuary over the last 10 years to serve as artificial reefs. All toxic and hazardous materials were removed from those vessels before they were sunk.