Navy tackles oil leak from battleship war grave

IT IS ONE of the Royal Navy's most sacred war graves. Torpedoed by a U-boat in 1939 with the loss of 833 lives, the battleship HMS Royal Oak lies beneath 90ft of water at the bottom of Scapa Flow in Orkney.

Oil has always seeped from the wreck in small quantities, but two years ago it began to be washed ashore, raising an agonising dilemma: the obvious way to avoid environmental disaster was to slice open the hull and draw out the oil, but that would have meant violating the sanctity of the grave. Last week, however, a pioneering operation aimed at satisfying environmental fears and preserving the grave began smoothly, concluding a two-year search for a way to drain off the estimated 2,000 gallons of oil the Royal Oak took to the bottom on the night of 14 October 1939.

The vessel was torpedoed at her moorings by a U-boat which sneaked through a blockade at the entrance to Scapa Flow, a key wartime naval base. She sank in just 15 minutes. To this day the ship is still honoured with an annual remembrance service.

The site is a haven for wildlife. More than 8,000 grey and common seals swim around Orkney, while puffins and many waders flock to the islands in their thousands. Leakage from the Royal Oak and other vessels on the sea-bed has left a thin, shiny film of surface oil on the waters of Scapa Flow.

The Navy has spent the past two years exploring ways to avoid cutting open the wreck, with naval engineers working on a three-dimensional computer model of the ship based on the original plans at the Royal Naval Museum at Greenwich. "The fact that the ship is a war grave is one of the most important points we had to consider," said Steve Willmot, an RN press officer based at Faslane.

"The Royal Oak was the first major naval casualty of the Second World War and involved an immense loss of life. It wasn't just a question of sending divers down to the wreck, drilling a few holes and pumping off what came out. We had to maintain the integrity of the war grave. Everything we've done is with the approval of the Royal Oak Survivors Association and families of the dead."

Experts from the Ministry of Defence's Naval Support Command manufactured a metal umbrella-shaped canopy, secured to the upturned hull of the wreck with cables, siphoning off the oil which is leaking at a rate of a gallon an hour.

The canopy was lowered into place last week and the first gallons of oil have been collected in what the Navy described as a successful operation. The canopy will be drained each month in a process expected to last 15 years, though the Navy is exploring ways of accelerating the drainage.

Orkney has strong naval links stemming from the two world wars. In 1919 the German High Seas fleet of 71 ships was scuttled in Scapa Flow and many British ships guarding the entrance were also holed. Many Orcadians felt strongly that the Royal Oak should not be tampered with but, conscious of the Braer tanker disaster which spilled 84,500 tonnes of crude oil off Shetland in 1993, they were also keen for the leak to be tackled as quickly as possible.

Environmentalists have expressed concern at the slow process of the solution, and would prefer the oil to be drained off swiftly rather than allowing a potential disaster to linger on for 15 years. Ross Flett of Orkney Seal Rescue said: "Scapa Flow is an important area for seals, and while the oil is down there, there is a possibility it could leak from other parts of the ship."

However, David Flanagan, a spokesman for Orkney Islands Council, thought the best solution had been found. "There has been mixed opinion but we're pleased with the way this has been handled. In some ways I think local people see the sheen of oil as a memorial to the dead of the ship and as long as that sheen doesn't cause any environmental problems they won't mind," he said.

Voices
voicesGood for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, writes Grace Dent
News
The University of California study monitored the reaction of 36 dogs
sciencePets' range of emotions revealed
Life and Style
fashion Designs are part of feminist art project by a British student
Arts and Entertainment
The nomination of 'The Wake' by Paul Kingsnorth has caused a stir
books
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Arts and Entertainment
The Tour de France peloton rides over a bridge on the Grinton Moor, Yorkshire, earlier this month
film
News
Snoop Dogg pictured at The Hollywood Reporter Nominees' Night in February, 2013
people... says Snoop Dogg
News
i100
Life and Style
food + drinkZebra meat is exotic and lean - but does it taste good?
Arts and Entertainment
Residents of Derby Road in Southampton oppose filming of Channel 4 documentary Immigration Street in their community
tv
Voices
voicesSiobhan Norton on why she eventually changed her mind
News
i100
Extras
indybest
Sport
Scottish singer Susan Boyle will perform at the Commonwealth Games opening ceremony in Glasgow
commonwealth games
Arts and Entertainment
Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson stars in Hercules
filmReview: The Rock is a muscular Davy Crockett in this preposterous film, says Geoffrey Macnab
Life and Style
tech
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

BI Manager - £50,000

£49000 - £55000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: My client is...

BI Project Manager - £48,000 - £54,000 - Midlands

£48000 - £54000 per annum + Benefits package: Progressive Recruitment: My clie...

VB.Net Developer

£35000 - £45000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: If you're pa...

SAP Business Consultant (SD, MM and FICO), £55,000, Wakefield

£45000 - £55000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: SAP Business...

Day In a Page

Screwing your way to the top? Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth

Screwing your way to the top?

Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, says Grace Dent
Climate change threatens to make the antarctic fur seal extinct

Take a good look while you can

How climate change could wipe out this seal
Man Booker Prize 2014 longlist: Crowdfunded novel nominated for first time

Crowdfunded novel nominated for Booker Prize

Paul Kingsnorth's 'The Wake' is in contention for the prestigious award
Tour de France effect brings Hollywood blockbusters to Yorkshire

Tour de France effect brings Hollywood blockbusters to Yorkshire

A $25m thriller starring Sam Worthington to be made in God's Own Country
Noel Fielding's 'Luxury Comedy': A land of the outright bizarre

Noel Fielding's 'Luxury Comedy'

A land of the outright bizarre
What are the worst 'Word Crimes'?

What are the worst 'Word Crimes'?

‘Weird Al’ Yankovic's latest video is an ode to good grammar. But what do The Independent’s experts think he’s missed out?
Can Secret Cinema sell 80,000 'Back to the Future' tickets?

The worst kept secret in cinema

A cult movie event aims to immerse audiences of 80,000 in ‘Back to the Future’. But has it lost its magic?
Facebook: The new hatched, matched and dispatched

The new hatched, matched and dispatched

Family events used to be marked in the personal columns. But now Facebook has usurped the ‘Births, Deaths and Marriages’ announcements
Why do we have blood types?

Are you my type?

All of us have one but probably never wondered why. Yet even now, a century after blood types were discovered, it’s a matter of debate what they’re for
Honesty box hotels: You decide how much you pay

Honesty box hotels

Five hotels in Paris now allow guests to pay only what they think their stay was worth. It seems fraught with financial risk, but the honesty policy has its benefit
Commonwealth Games 2014: Why weight of pressure rests easy on Michael Jamieson’s shoulders

Michael Jamieson: Why weight of pressure rests easy on his shoulders

The Scottish swimmer is ready for ‘the biggest race of my life’ at the Commonwealth Games
Some are reformed drug addicts. Some are single mums. All are on benefits. But now these so-called 'scroungers’ are fighting back

The 'scroungers’ fight back

The welfare claimants battling to alter stereotypes
Amazing video shows Nasa 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action

Fireballs in space

Amazing video shows Nasa's 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action
A Bible for billionaires

A Bible for billionaires

Find out why America's richest men are reading John Brookes
Paranoid parenting is on the rise - and our children are suffering because of it

Paranoid parenting is on the rise

And our children are suffering because of it