German freighter gets new attention 44 years after sinking in Lake Huron

>Guest post by Petty Officer 1st Class Conan Blanchard

On July 24, 2010, while conducting a routine harbor patrol, U.S. Coast Guard Station Alpena, Mich., noticed an oil sheen in the Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary, proving once again, that nothing in the Coast Guard is routine.

Station Alpena coordinated with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, who oversees the Lake Huron marine sanctuary. NOAA divers conducted their initial dive and discovered the oil came from the vessel Nordmeer, a 470-foot freighter that sank on November 16, 1966. Coast Guard Sector Detroit deployed pollution investigators, Petty Officer 3rd Class Jonny Walker and Petty Officer 3rd Class Jamie Hoover, in response to the pollution. Working with the pollution investigators, NOAA divers were able to localize the source of the discharge to a broken flange pipe.

(The half-sunken Nordmeer in 1967. Photo courtest of Randy Johnson, R.J. Dives)

“This is one of the more interesting cases we’ve had at the Sector, due to the history behind the vessel,” said Walker.

He also stated that as he arrived on scene aboard Station Alpena’s 25-foot Response Boat-Small (RB-S), he spotted a sheen that was approximately 50-feet by 25-feet and could see the vessel actively discharging peanut-sized oil droplets every five seconds.

The marine sanctuary has over 200 wrecks within its boundaries, and Nordmeer grounded on Thunder Bay Island Shoal due to a navigational error made by the crew. Nordmeer was a German-flagged vessel carrying coiled steel. The master initially thought the ship could be salvaged, but severe storms coming soon after the vessel ground caused the remaining crew to be rescued by Coast Guard helicopters and vessels.

After Nordmeer had sunk, oil removal operations were conducted on several occasions between 1967 and 1971. Approximately 60,000 gallons of crude oil were removed from the vessel and the Coast Guard, Environmental Protection Agency and the State of Michigan determined the vessel was free of oil except for residual oil that remained in the inaccessible piping system.

(The flange where peanut-sized drops of oil had been escaping. Photo courtesy of NOAA)

Over the last 44 years, natural processes such as wave action and ice movement took their toll on Nordmeer. The keel broke soon after grounding, though portions of the superstructure remained above water until the early 1980s. When the superstructure collapsed, only the starboard hull and forward most deckhouse remained visible above the waterline. The deckhouse fell off during the winter of 2006-2007 and the hull plates finally succumbed to winter weather in 2009-2010. Today, nothing remains above the waterline, though portions of the jagged hull are just beneath the surface.

With the responsible party long gone from an incident that occurred 44 years ago, Sector Detroit opened up the Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund and hired environmental contractor T&T Bisso to secure the oil discharge. Petty Officer 1st Class James Kelly, a pollution investigator at Sector Detroit, acting as Federal On-Scene Coordinator Representative (FOSCR), supervised the operations as T&T Bisso sent down a diver to place a rubber gasket and fitted cap over the flange. Petty Officer Kelly reported the cap appeared to be working as the vessel stopped discharging oil.