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Jul 4, 2010 3:44 PM by Chris Welty

Sinking Oil Threatens Historic Gulf Shipwrecks

TIMBALIER ISLANDS, La. (AP) - Not just flora and fauna are
getting caked in oil. So is the Gulf of Mexico's barnacled history
of pirates, sea battles and World War II shipwrecks.
The Gulf is lined with wooden shipwrecks, American-Indian shell
midden mounds, World War II casualties, pirate colonies, historic
hotels and old fishing villages. Researchers now fear this treasure
seeker's dream is threatened by BP PLC's deepwater well blowout.
Within 20 miles of the well, there are several significant
shipwrecks - ironically, discovered by oil companies' underwater
robots working the depths - and oil is most likely beginning to
cascade on them.
"People think of them as being lost, but with the deepsea
diving innovations we have today, these shipwrecks are easily
accessible," said Steven Anthony, president of the Maritime
Archaeological and Historical Society.
"If this oil congeals on the bottom, it will be dangerous for
scuba divers to go down there and explore," Anthony said. "The
spill will stop investigations; it will put a chill, a halt on
(underwater) operations."
The wrecks include two 19th-century wooden ships known as the
"Mica Wreck" and the "Mardi Gras Wreck." The German submarine
U-166 and ships sunk by other German submarines during World War II
are within the spill's footprint.
The Mica was a 200-year-old, two-masted schooner that sank
sometime before 1850, according to a report by the Minerals
Management Service. It was discovered about 2,500 feet deep in the
Mississippi Canyon during work to lay a pipeline.
In 2002, the Mardi Gras wreck was discovered by oilfield workers
in even deeper waters: About 4,000 feet down about 35 miles off the
Louisiana coast. The wreck got its name from the pipeline project
where the wreck was found: the Mardi Gras Gas Transmission System,
a huge deepwater pipeline system.
Researchers with Texas A&M University believe the sunken ship
may have been a gun runner or British trader during the War of
1812.
BP played a part in finding the U-166, a German U-boat sunk in
World War II off the Louisiana coast. Then, as now, the Mississippi
River was an important corridor for merchant shipping.
Crews surveying a pipeline project for BP and Shell in the
Mississippi Canyon region came across U-166 in 2001. On July 30,
1942, the German submarine torpedoed the passenger-freighter Robert
E. Lee, and then itself was sunk by depth charges from the Navy
escort PC-566.
This week, oil washed ashore in the Florida Panhandle, where the
USS Oriskany aircraft carrier lies off the coast of Pensacola, Fla.
The Navy sank it in May 2006 to make an artificial reef. Sen. John
McCain once flew bombing runs off the ship's deck.
The tedious task of examining the wrecks for damage is
beginning, though it's uncertain whether BP will be held
responsible for ruining underwater sites.
Dave McMahan, Alaska's state archaeologist and an Exxon Valdez
oil spill veteran, said federal environmental surveys and the
courts would likely decide the matter.
"I would say for the folks working on cultural resources - or
any resource - document everything," McMahan advised.
Archaeologists are fanning out to assess the spill's effect. The
Gulf shoreline is chock full of history and to a trained eye, the
bounty springs out.
"This is like Christmas Day for me," said Courtney Cloy, an
archaeologist mapping the Timbalier Islands, a barrier island chain
on Louisiana's central coast. "I am finding ceramics all over the
surface out here."
The origin of the ceramics was unclear. Perhaps they washed in
from a shipwreck just offshore. Or they might have come from a
hotel or home that once stood on the badly eroded barrier islands.
For now, the Timbalier islands are safe: Oil contamination has
been modest and cleanup crews are being kept at bay.
But archaeologists have grave concerns for other locations.
Oil has begun washing up on Pensacola's beaches, where in 1886,
Geronimo, the Apache warrior, was imprisoned in Fort Pickens, the
largest of four forts built to defend Pensacola Bay.
On the Mississippi coast, Ship Island was the only deep-water
harbor between Mobile Bay and the Mississippi River for 300 years;
thousands of Europeans first set foot in North America there,
earning the nickname Plymouth Rock of the Gulf Coast.
During the Civil War, Ship Island was Union Adm. David
Farragut's base of operations, where he successfully launched an
attack on New Orleans in April 1862.
On Grand Terre Island, just west of the Mississippi River,
archaeologists have found remnants of a colony set up by Jean
Lafitte, the pirate who helped Andrew Jackson win the Battle of New
Orleans.
Archaeologist hope to avoid the mistakes made during the Exxon
Valdez cleanup.
"We learned from Exxon Valdez that there were incidents of
looting by cleanup workers, equipment being brought in, destroying
the ground," said John Rawls, marine archaeologist with Earth
Search Inc., a firm hired by BP to do archaeological surveys.
In one incident, cleanup workers stumbled across a prehistoric
Chugachmiut burial cave containing wooden artifacts.
"Cleanup workers found the cave, which was unknown to
archaeologists, and removed some of the bones and then called a
supervisor," McMahan said. He said Exxon security collected more
of the bones and state troopers raked remains into a body bag and
carted them away. "The site was pretty much trashed," he said.
McMahan said cleanup workers need to be trained to be aware of
their surroundings and to tread lightly on the landscape.
Archaeologists worry the push to clean the BP spill as fast as
possible is causing damage. Bulldozers and dredges are being used
to build barrier islands and erect sand dams, and thousands of
workers are raking tar balls and crude off beaches.
"Avoidance is No. 1," Cloy said. "We want to keep our
footprint on these sites as minimal as possible."

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