GIGLIO ISLAND, Italy—When the Costa Concordia finally leaves Giglio Island sometime early next week, it will be traveling with one of the most impressive oil spill cleanup and environmental disaster response convoys ever assembled.
The crippled cruiseliner has been encased in 30 uninflated flotation caissons connected under the rotting ship by giant chains and cables weighing around 30 million metric tons, which will hoist the ship up when the caissons are filled with air. Each meter of each chain alone weighs 400 kilograms. On July 17, Franco Porcellacchia, chief engineer at the Costa cruise company, told reporters that the vessel is some 4,000 metric tons over its anticipated weight, but this is still within the margin of error in their calculations. The extra weight, which is primarily water inside the ship that engineers had hypothesized would escape when the Concordia was parbuckled to an upright position last September, is not expected to cause any additional problems, he said.
Once the ship has been lifted 12 meters, it will be towed from the bow by two heavy tugboats called the Blizzard and the Resolve Earl, each with a safe working load of 135 metric tons. Two auxiliary tugs positioned behind the ship will stabilize it. Additional tugs will be in the convoy to help out if extra power is needed. The Concordia can withstand waves of up to 2.6 meters, which are rare during the summer months in the seas around Italy.
A 200-metric-ton crane will travel on a pontoon in the convoy, ready to assist in the event that one of the flotation caissons slips, as one did last April. Two oil spill response vessels and two additional vessels equipped with oil skimmers will also accompany the ship. The convoy will be skirted by 800 meters of offshore oil booms and 5,000 meters of absorbent booms. A team of marine biologists will follow in the Concordia’s wake to monitor the reaction of sea life. Environmental specialists will test the water, and the Italian Air Force has already started flying missions with an ATR-42 aircraft equipped with infrared cameras to look for leaking toxins.
More than 40 closed-circuit cameras affixed above and below the Concordia will be monitored for debris left behind, which could include mattresses, luggage and other personal effects, and chemicals such as engine oil or cleaning products containing bleach and ammonia. Net booms on smaller vessels traveling with the ship will collect the debris.
Salvage master Nick Sloane will head the team of engineers on board the wrecked ship as it makes its way some 300 kilometers north from Giglio to Genoa. His group of a dozen experts will troubleshoot any problems. Specialists will travel in accompanying vessels to assist, including a team of divers on a dive pontoon with two hyperbaric chambers in case any underwater repairs need to be made. The convoy will also bring along an emergency medical response team with a physician and paramedics. “We have anticipated any disaster and are prepared to respond to it,” Sloane told Scientific American ahead of the refloat. “You plan for the worst and work for the best.”
The team is optimistic that the refloat and tow will succeed, but because there is no “plan B” they have little choice but to be positive. On July 17, Ségolène Royal, France’s minister of environment, expressed concern that the Concordia might pollute French waters around Corsica when the ship passes by. She has demanded that France be given all documentation for prevention and cleanup of a potential disaster. Italy’s civil protection chief Franco Gabrielli said on the same day that this would be unnecessary because the Concordia would not be passing through French waters.
Once the ship leaves Giglio’s harbor, work will begin immediately to remove salvage equipment. Islanders have signed a petition asking the Italian environmental ministry to leave underwater platforms in place to create an artificial reef and underwater memorial for the 32 passengers and crew who lost their lives in the shipwreck.