Santorini Shipwreck Is an Environmental Disaster Waiting To Happen, Greek Activist Warns

Santorini Residents Outraged as Shipwreck Threatens to Pollute Paradise
  • The cruise ship Sea Diamond sank in April 2007 off the Greek tourist spot.
  • Scientists warned fuel and chemicals onboard could harm the environment.
  • For 13 years, the Greek government has failed to have the ship removed.

For more than 13 years, a sunken cruise ship has rested deep underwater on a steep slope of the Santorini caldera.

The ship, the MS Sea Diamond, ran aground off the Greek island on April 5, 2007. Two passengers died, but another 1,195 and about 400 crew members were evacuated before the ship was towed off the rocks and allowed to sink in the remnants of the ancient volcano.

The people of Santorini have fought since then to have the wreck removed before it becomes what they say will be an environmental catastrophe.

“The rudimentary pollution barrier that has been placed at sea level is not adequate to collect all the substances that are being released,” Evangelos Gidarakos, leader of the Technical University of Crete team responsible for monitoring the wreck, told Kathimerini. “If the ship is left as is, a biological disaster will befall the caldera. Something needs to be done at once.”

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The Greek government in 2017 ordered the coast guard and local authorities to implement a plan to have the ship raised, according to Seatrade Cruise News. At that time, Greece’s shipping ministry declared the Sea Diamond wreck posed a potential environmental risk and was a hazard to shipping.

In 2011, the government said it couldn’t pay for the ship’s removal and ship owner Louis Hellenic Cruises would have to cover the costs. Legal wrangling has kept the issue in the courts.

This past December, a government public ports authority said it planned to seek bids to have the Sea Diamond salvaged, the Nation Herald reported. A few weeks later, however, the bidding process was shut down and the government said it was dismantling the public port authority, according to the Greek Reporter.

The town of Oia and Thyra on the island of Santorini, Greece. Some 2,000 residents of the island have signed a petition asking the government to finally remove a sunken cruise ship from the ancient caldera.

(Photo by ARIS MESSINIS/AFP via Getty Images)

“What is at stake in this case is who will pay for the process; the insurance company does not want to, neither does the ship-owner company, and of course everyone is trying to avoid the removal, just as has happened with so many other shipwrecks in the Greek seas,” Loucas Lignos, a representative of two local groups protesting the handling of the wreck, told the Greek Reporter.

Various studies have disagreed over the possible extent of environmental damage from the wreck.

The Hellenic Centre for Marine Research, which is funded by the Greek government, issued a report saying “the general conclusion arising from measurements spanning a period of 12 years since the accident is that there are no obvious repercussions on the marine ecosystem of the area from the shipwreck.”

A paper presented in 2010 by the International Tanker Owners Pollution Federation, an industry group representing ship owners, said the Sea Diamond originally spilled 300 metric tons, or a little more than 79,000 gallons, of fuel in the weeks after it ran around. In 2009, according to the paper, another 39,625 gallons of oil was pumped out of the ship. That leaves less than 18,000 gallons of fuel still in the tanks, according to the paper.

The wreck continues to leak some heavy fuel oil, about 8 to 16 gallons a day. Booms are in place on the sea’s surface to contain those leaks, but oil has escaped them at times.

A study published in 2013 in the International Journal of Environmental Science and Technology pointed out that the ship also contained batteries, old cathode-ray televisions and other electronics that will release heavy metals as they corrode.

The listing cruise ship Sea Diamond is surrounded by smaller ships during its evacuation effort off the coast of Santorini, Greece, on April 5, 2007. 05 April 2007. The 472-foot boat operated by Cyprus-based Louis Hellenic Cruises ran aground on a rocky coast one nautical mile off the shores of Santorini in the Aegean Sea.

(STR/AFP via Getty Images)

A company-produced list of hazardous materials onboard the ship included mercury, lead, zinc, chlorofluorocarbons, radioactive material, cadmium, copper and tributyltin, according to a complaint in 2013 from the Archipelagos Institute of Marine Conservation in Greece to the European Union. The complaint said Greece was violating several EU directives by not forcing the removal of the Sea Diamond wreck.

In the complaint, the institute said, “… the Sea Diamond wreck represents a significant health threat to the inhabitants of Santorini and local ecosystems, and imperils Santorini’s tourism industry.”

The complaint also said the effort to remove oil from the wreck in 2009 was mostly ineffective. One barrel of liquid pumped from the wreck was 99% seawater and only 1% oil, the group said.

The complaint also cited a study from the Technical University of Crete that found the Sea Diamond “caused and continues to cause significant environmental harm as well as serious threats to human health.”

“Scientists have cautioned that removal of the Sea Diamond wreck from the caldera is the only way to eliminate leaks from oil and emission of pollutants like heavy metals into the surrounding aquatic environment,” the complaint stated.

Lignos, the activist on Santorini, said, “I can’t say that we currently have tar or petrol oil on our beaches, or that we can’t swim, but I do notice oily mixtures surfacing from the shipwreck daily. Someday, the tanks will break open and much more fuel will come out from whatever is inside MS Sea Diamond.”

More than 2,000 island residents have signed a petition calling on the Ministry of Shipping and Island Policy to finally remove the wreck.

“It’s just not possible that they [officials] have stayed inactive and done nothing on this case for 13 years running, essentially letting the time go by in the interest of the ship-owner,” Lignos said. “Because when 20 or 30 years will have passed, they’ll tell us, you know what, the ship is now rusted and the metal won’t survive being lifted up by the cranes. So leave it there and any time that fuel surfaces, we’ll come clean it up.”

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