Costa Concordia: An ecological disaster?

Mediterranean monk seal The critically endangered monk seal is a visitor to the Tuscan archipelago's waters

Even as the search continues for any further survivors of the Costa Concordia accident, questions are being asked about the potential environmental impact.

We have a big ship with tanks full of fuel, aground on an island in a sea fringed with natural protected areas.

So the worst case scenario is pretty bad.

Isola del Giglio, where the stricken cruise ship rests, is part of the Tuscan Archipelago National Park, the largest marine protected area in Italy.

Among its inhabitants are important plants and birds and some rare frogs, while the seas support coral, cetaceans and the occasional Mediterranean monk seal - a critically endangered species.

However, there is also quite a large human presence in the archipelago. On Giglio itself, only about half the land area is protected, and none of the seas around the shore.

Other islands further to the north and west - Elba, Pianosa, Montecristo - contain more natural riches.

To the east on the mainland, lies the Laguna di Orbetello, an important bird reserve.

A little further north is the Natural Park of Maremma - the only Italian habitat for at least one dune-dwelling plant, a stopover point for migratory birds, and the location for a successful reintroduction of osprey.


Elena Moutier, a scientific consultant working at the park, told BBC News that an oil spill there "would be a disaster".

"The Maremma Park is one of the most important regional parks in Italy, for the landscape, the ecosystem and the richness in endemic species of plants and animals," she said.

However, all of this is in the realms of the potential, not the actual.

As far as we are aware - and sources including the salvage company Smit and environmental group WWF concur - there has been no fuel spillage so far.

The Costa Concordia The ship lies close to shore, so any oil released could do major damage

There has been a fair amount of confusion about what material is on board, with some reports saying the Concordia runs on heavy fuel oil and others citing diesel.

That's a crucial point if there is a spill.

While relatively light diesel would disperse fairly quickly in a swelling sea, heavy fuel oil is clumpy and clinging, as we saw in the Deepwater Horizon disaster of 2010.

The answer is that the ship contains both. Smit's figures are 2,400 tonnes of heavy fuel oil and 200 tonnes of diesel; the manufacturer of the ship's engines told BBC News that they are "fuel flexible".

For comparison, said Simon Boxall from the UK's National Oceanography Centre, the fuel oil consignment is equivalent to "about half of a day's output" from the Deepwater Horizon disaster "when spewing oil at the full rate".

But the ship's proximity to the coast means a spill would be "damaging", he said.

Smit's experts and equipment are now in place near the stricken ship, and are ready to begin extracting the oil. The process involves drilling holes at the highest and lowest points of the tanks and fitting valves to them.

Seawater exerts pressure from the bottom, forcing the oil up and and out of the top valve. The sticky oil is encouraged to flow by using heat from a steam generator on a nearby barge.

The process could take two to four weeks.

The big risk in the meantime would be if the vessel began breaking up.

Underwater shot of the ship Contractors blasted holes in the hull to gain access, but overall it appears sound and stable

During a news conference on Tuesday morning, contractors were optimistic that it would not.

The seas are said to be calm; and although the Concordia is perched in coastal shallows with the potential to tumble into deeper waters, Smit believes it's unlikely to move.

"Based on the first underwater pictures, there are quite a number of [hull] penetrations on the starboard side," operations manager Kees van Essen told reporters.

"They are acting as an anchor; so although we never underestimate the danger, the chance of the vessel sliding down into deeper water is minimal."

In case of spillages in the meantime, the site is surrounded by booms - although as Deepwater Horizon proved, their utility as barriers can be substantially less than promised.

Perhaps the closest recent comparator is the Rena, the container ship that struck New Zealand's Astrolabe Reef in October.

Again, the site was in an area of outstanding ecological importance. And the pounding seas eventually broke the ship in two.

Nevertheless, the incident fell a long way short of constituting an environmental disaster - mainly because salvage operators were able to pump out the vast majority of the oil.

So far, the indications are that the Concordia may prove even less damaging - at least from an environmental point of view.

In both cases, there's a wider question. Neither vessel was on its scheduled course, for different reasons.

But parts of the Italian government and environment groups are asking whether such large vessels should be able to travel through, or even close to, areas that are supposed to be protected.

As Italy's Environment Minister Corrado Clini put it, referring to the passenger boats that ferry people around the Venetian lagoon: "That's enough, we have to stop treating these ships like they were simple vaporetti [small ferries]."

But cargo ships and cruise liners have commercial imperatives to go where they go. We will see whether Mr Clini wins the argument he is bound to have if he is serious about reining them in.

Richard Black Article written by Richard Black Richard Black Former environment correspondent

Farewell and thanks for reading

This is my last entry for this page - I'm leaving the BBC to work, initially, on ocean conservation issues.

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  • rate this

    Comment number 25.

    Why move it?
    Remove the noxious contents (fuel, waste, etc), make it safe and secure and let it become a tourist attraction for a while, maybe a film set or wedding location. Might even make more money than cruising.

  • rate this

    Comment number 24.

    Built for max profit,not Safety,look like a block of flats not a ship.You cannot take chances with the sea, (ex P&O seaman)

  • rate this

    Comment number 23.

    One of the things that amazes me about this is the level of criticism of the evacuation. It was 4000 people in a pretty rapid disaster and after the headcount only 40 were missing. That's 99 out of 100 in a ship the size of a small town with a million places for people to become lost or trapped. To me it shows that despite the panic the rescue plan worked pretty well. ..

  • rate this

    Comment number 22.

    'questions are being asked'

    Rightly so, but I'd hazard it's more 'statements are being made', even more valuably, as would be the sources for these comments.

    They may be worth paying attention to, depending on context, expertise and reasons provided.

    Otherwise it seems an awfully vague way to open a discussion, and too often appears shorthand to provoke areas of debate more than inform.

  • rate this

    Comment number 21.

    The reality is that if one accident can spell disaster for an ecosystem, as per the headline implies, then the ecosystem is already so damaged and vulnerable that it is probably already in long term decline.

    Its near the largest marine protected area in Italy, but if the area was 10 times larger the impact would be that much less and the areas resiliance to such an accident would be far higher.

  • rate this

    Comment number 20.

    A switch to high density housing can accommodate those displaced by rewilding projects as well as being more energy efficient, think of a modern equivalent of the Glasgow tenements.

  • rate this

    Comment number 19.

    Reading between the lines if Richard’s excellent article I think that Richard is suggesting that environmentally sensitive areas around the world should become human free areas that are completely returned to nature, this is called rewilding & there is lots of good info about rewilding on the net.

  • rate this

    Comment number 18.

    The Costa Concordia is built like "an SUV of the Seas", with a high Center-of-Gravity (it tips-over more easily).
    I've seen an estimate of two-to-five weeks to get the fuel oil off-loaded.
    Let's hope the vessel doesn't slip down the undersea slope some more!

  • rate this

    Comment number 17.

    #Counselor1, a ship can't just shut down it's engines or reverse them just like that. You stop the engine you will soon lose the ability to steer.
    The bunkers are well contained and unlikely to leak. The prospect of major environmental damage is extremely unlikely. The bigger threat to wildlife will be from all the synthetic debris and plastic washing about than from fuel.

  • rate this

    Comment number 16.

    Are there no other officers on the bridge of such a ship who could have deterred the Captain from sailing too close? Doesn't such a ship have underwater obstruction sensing equipment that sounds warnings in time or even shuts down and/or reverses the engines under collision sensing conditions or changes course unless manually overridden?

  • rate this

    Comment number 15.

    Having spent 30 years at sea, mainly as chief engineer, from my reading the heavy oil fuel system has only 17 tanks, reasonably simple. With a bit of luck and sufficient effort removing the heavy oil from the ship could be done without any environmental impact.
    The talk of tugs and cranes is rather meaningless, this hulk is going nowhere for a long time, unless the weather decides otherwise.

  • rate this

    Comment number 14.

    Mr Clini makes an interesting point but neither are cruise ships supertankers. Unfortunately the question "how close is close enough" is not easy to answer. That depends very much on the circumstances at the time, including ship size, cargo or load and such mundane things as the weather which can make a huge difference in determining the effects of any incident or spill. No easy answers...

  • rate this

    Comment number 13.

    #12 Kevin Donelly,
    Maybe. But the ship ran aground when many people were in the dining room, so think of all the free food that the fishes and crabs got as a result.

  • rate this

    Comment number 12.

    The author above is concerned with potential oil spills, obviously a big concern. But HUGE damage has already been done, when the ship hit the rocks and is now laying on top of what was a living environment: coral, plants, fish and crustaceans living in the ocean. This has already caused thousands of animals to lose their lives, as well as all the living organisms crushed by this catastrophe!

  • rate this

    Comment number 11.

    What a load of ill-informed knee-jerk comments!

    The main salvage operation can only begin when the search for survivors is called off. Meantime, spillage from the bunker tanks will only occur if they are ruptured, which they clearly are not, despite the hull damage.

    If anyone wants to do something useful for a change, then just pray for continued calm weather!

  • rate this

    Comment number 10.


    @jJohn_from_Hendon There's not that much heavy salvage equipment in the world, and it needs to be flown or shipped in from wherever it is - will take time. Ditto tugs and crane barges. Salvage firm SMIT have been contracted to remove fuel; assessment probably ongoing to see if vessel can be removed or will be broken up in situ.

  • rate this

    Comment number 9.

    8. John_from_Hendon

    Is it possible that all this is just because the current operation is still a rescue mission, or that the vessel is not going to be moved until all the lost passengers have been accounted for?

  • rate this

    Comment number 8.

    I must say I find it surprising that there are no signs of any sea going salvage cranes or equipment on site.

    Several questions come to mind:

    Is it that insurers will not pay up?

    Is the ship insured at Lloyds?

    Is Carnival self-insured and do they have the money?

    Why are there no sea going tugs?

    We need to know!

    So some journo please find out!

  • rate this

    Comment number 7.

    Absolutely ! Low speed marine diesels run on filthy black gunge that comes from the bottom of the cracker in the refinery. It's repulsive stuff and disastrous for the environment. Perhaps, since they probably spend more of their time in environmentally sensitive waters than most other vessels, there should be tighter standards for cruise ships' bunker design and strength.

  • rate this

    Comment number 6.

    Had this ship been fueled by algae derived bio fuel, as being tested by the US Navy, any spillage would be eaten by aquatic micro organisms.


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