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The Spiegel Grove Wreck


Before the 510-foot Spiegel Grove came to rest on the sandy bottom off Key Largo June 10, 2002, experts spent 28,000 hours cleaning and preparing the ship to be sunk in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary.

Employees of Bay Bridge Enterprises of Chesapeake, Va., removed approximately 400,000 linear feet of cable and flushed 110 fuel tanks so that a half-dozen government agencies inspecting the vessel would give it environmental approval for sinking.

The ship is the largest ever intentionally scuttled to create an artificial reef.

"It was very intensive work," said Bay Bridge Project Manager Tim Mullane, who explained that potentially contaminated wires, insulation and ductwork had to be removed from corners and below decks by hand because machinery couldn't fit into the compact spaces. "It's nothing that you can necessarily do just with machines," he said. "A lot of its all done by hand."

In all, workers disengaged some 100,000 pounds of cables, toting them to bins that were sealed and plucked from the vessel by crane. Cleaning shipboard tanks, Bay Bridge Environmental Health and Safety Administrator Rich Lodgek said, consumed three months, with 10 men using double-diaphragm air pumps eight hours a day, five days a week to drive oils, gases and fluids into tanker trucks. Then each of the tanks had to be rinsed clean and to remove any petroleum residue.

To avoid removing all paint and produce a cleaner product than a pressure washer could accomplish, they hand-scraped loose paint from the vessel and vacuumed the paint chips. Bay Bridge staffers also removed electronic equipment, vent gaskets and any other items that, like the wires, insulation and ductwork, could possibly contain PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls). PCBs are outdated chemicals that poison fish and other living marine organisms. The Spiegel Grove became the first artificial reef project required to adhere to rigid PCB regulations initiated by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in the mid-1990s.

The Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary was created by a 1990 act of the U.S. Congress and encompasses 2,896 square nautical miles of a protected marine ecosystem surrounding these subtropical islands. For the Spiegel Grove to gain initial EPA approval as an artificial reef within sanctuary waters, project organizers with the Key Largo Chamber of Commerce Artificial Reef Committee in 1998 submitted a detailed plan for its cleaning. Even the facilities where the ship would be scoured had to attain EPA clearance.

On June 13, 2001, the Spiegel Grove was towed from the St. James River Fleet at Fort Eustis, Va., to the Accurate Marine Environmental Center in nearby Portsmouth. There, Virginia-based Ocean Reefs Inc. removed precious metals and some wiring. In January, after Ocean Reefs depleted its resources and backed away from the job, the Artificial Reef Committee enlisted Bay Bridge to complete the work.

According to Lodgek, some 99 percent of cables and shipboard materials tested negative for toxins in EPA-certified labs but all were removed nonetheless. Also removed were refrigeration remains that might contain the chemical compound freon and its ozone-depleting CFCs, or chlorofluorocarbons, as well as light fixtures that could possibly hold the toxic metal mercury. Scrubbing generators and galley equipment with wire brushes and vacuuming them, workers left them on board the vessel for divers to explore. Items that were removed, Mullane said, are to be recycled on site or other locations.

"Watching the progress from beginning to end has been incredibly exciting and a great learning experience," said Lodgek, who has experience with decontamination, but found that the Spiegel Grove, his first artificial reef project, required even more comprehensive record keeping.

The EPA and Florida Keys Sanctuary as well as the U.S. Coast Guard, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and Monroe County were required to inspect and sign off on the ship before it could be scuttled.

Another phase of the project involved making the ship as safe as possible for divers. Numerous hatches and doors were welded shut, while others were secured in an open position. Large holes were cut throughout the ship to provide entrance and egress points to help prevent divers from entrapment.

"Passing inspection was difficult, but Bay Bridge did an excellent job," said Rob Bleser, project manager for the Spiegel Grove sinking, representing the Key Largo Chamber of Commerce Artificial Reef Committee.

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More information on the Spiegel Grove and links to Key Largo visitor information are available on this website. Visitors are encouraged to contact the Key Largo Chamber of Commerce, toll-free in the U.S. and Canada, at 1-800-FLA-KEYS, Ext. 1. Elsewhere, dial 305-451-1414.

Contact: Andy Newman

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