Efforts to recover 500,000 gallons of fuel from the half-submerged Costa Concordia got underway Sunday, nearly a month after the 114,500-ton cruise liner ran aground and capsized just offshore of Italy’s Giglio Island.
The shipwreck’s close proximity to shore and its location in an environmentally sensitive area – the Pelagos Sanctuary for Mediterranean Marine Mammals — combined with it’s precarious position on an underwater ledge, has made the possibility of a major spill a matter of concern since the ship foundered on January 13.
The volume of fuel oil aboard the ship is roughly that of a small tanker, but the fuel salvage operation could not begin until passenger search and rescue operations ended January 27. Since then, rough seas, high winds and, at times, blinding snow, have further delayed emptying the ship’s 15 fuel tanks.
Offloading the fuel will require 28 continuous days of around-the-clock pumping according to the Dutch salvage firm Smit in charge of the operation. With 4-5 days of favorable weather forecasts ahead – and by concentrating on those tanks with the most fuel – officials hope to make considerable progress by week’s end.
Complicating recovery as well as potential environmental damage is the low-viscosity of the fuel oil, which must be warmed before it can be pumped. And because the tanks are underwater, valves had to be installed in so that, as oil is removed from the top of a tank, seawater can be pumped into the bottom.
Given the size of the Costa Concordia and the compromised integrity of its hull, salvage experts indicate that refloating the vessel in order to eventually remove it is out of the question. Thus, the only option is to cut it apart in place, in which case removal could take up to a year.
The accident has thus far resulted in 17 confirmed deaths with 15 persons still missing.