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Crippled Cruise Ship, Costa Concordia, Haunts Italians of Giglio

Island residents cannot forget "the families who came to get the bodies of their loved ones"

Get Rid of the Oil

Since the accident, Ortelli has had to guide his island through a bizarre trauma that has no precedent. A passenger ship as big as the Concordia had never shipwrecked before—let alone on an island as tiny as Giglio. Today, the picturesque coastline is marred by the rotting carcass of the ship, and the islanders are scarred for life. Their once-tranquil haven has been taken over by a burly, 460-strong multi-national salvage crew, a steady stream of global media and nosey tragedy tourists who day-trip over from the Italian mainland to gawk at the ship.

The Concordia rests precariously on two underwater rocks that are neither flat nor necessarily stable. Environmentalists were immediately worried that the ship would break apart from its uneven weight on the uneven seabed, or worse, that she would slip about 200 feet into deeper waters with full fuel tanks that would burst under the water pressure. Cleanup crews put oil booms in place even before the last live passengers were rescued three days after the crash.  The booms have since been reinforced to create a double barrier in case something goes wrong.

Environmental worry is intense because the island is tucked inside the Pelagos Sanctuary for Mediterranean Marine Mammals, a protected haven for scores of water mammal species—the largest park of its kind in Europe. On a clear day, dolphins and whale calves can be spotted in the tranquil deep waters off the coast. The island is just eight square miles in area, and is only 10 percent inhabited. The rest is covered with lush flora, which makes a perfect landscape for hikers. Lavender and heather bushes grow wild, and giant strawberry plants imbue the air with a perfumed scent in the springtime. Naturalists dive and explore the world-renowned Posidonia underwater meadows and snorkel among the unique coral reefs. Giglio also draws bird watchers who come to see the cormorants, red partridges, woodcocks and kestrels that nest there. But now only a fraction of the birds are nesting, chased away by seagulls that have been attracted to the floating food of the shipwreck.

The salvage operation has been a multi-phase and multi-million dollar thorn in Ortelli’s side that began just days after the ship crashed. The first priority was to remove 2,500 metric tonnes of heavy bunker oil the ship had just loaded in Civitavecchia for its seven day cruise around the Mediterranean, without spilling a drop into the pristine waters.

The Dutch salvage company SMIT set to work to extract the fuel from the 17 partially submerged tanks. Workers slowly heated the tanks with steam to soften the gelled substance in order to siphon it out. As the oil came out they pumped seawater into the empty tanks to maintain the ship’s perilous equilibrium. Once the fuel was unloaded, a tanker shipped it back to the Italian port town of Genoa to be reused in Costa’s fleet, docked at the Costa headquarters there.

The potential for a fuel spill was by far the most dangerous environmental threat of the salvage operation, but it involved other complications. Scientists knew, for example, that the sea life would suffer from the constant hum of heavy machinery; shortly after the defueling operation began, SMIT  lowered tubes into the water to pump in compressed air, creating a barrier of bubbles that would insulate the marine park water outside the site from the noise, shielding the dolphins and porpoises. Many sections of coral have been temporarily repositioned.  And 200 pinna nobilis, or pen shelled clams, that were at risk of being destroyed in the salvage operation, have been relocated to nearby waters until the ship is gone.

Float It, Don’t Blow It

Even with the fuel out of the way, the Concordia still represented serious environmental issues. Costa had to find a salvage company to remove it as quickly as possible. The project, worth an estimated $400 million, is the largest-ever attempted maritime salvage. Ships that big are usually blown up or sunk. But Italy’s environmental ministry backed the people of Giglio to pressure Costa to find a company that would refloat the ship rather than destroy it or break it up and haul away on barges. Given its precarious location and the time it would take to dismantle—not to mention the pollution, noise and risks to the environment—the only option was to remove the ship in one piece. That would be a daunting task. The Concordia is 955 feet long and 126 feet wide at the beam. It weights just over 114,000 tonnes. More than 65 percent of it is submerged under water, balancing above a seabed that is made up of coral reefs and sand bars.

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