Crude Awakening

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Outside magazine, September 1997

Crude Awakening

Torpedoed 55 years ago off central California, a once-forgotten tanker presents a sticky dilemma
By Christopher Weir

Warning: Your Kids May Be Listening to Yanni

Sure, they figured an alternative act would win. And yes, they expected their typical survey respondent would be a pierced, goatee-wearing rebel. So when the folks at the Cannondale bike company tabulated the results of their "markedly unscientific" Web poll last June — in which enthusiasts were asked, What music goes best with mountain biking? — they weren't exactly surprised to find sullen rockers Rage Against the Machine at the top of the list. What was unexpected, however, were the votes cast for the likes of Beethoven, Pavarotti, and New Age stylist John Tesh. "I guess it really is hard to keep up with what the kids are listening to these days," says bemused company spokesman Tom Armstrong. "We even had an all-out, nip-and-tuck battle between polka music and Yanni for a slot in the top ten."

And Now, Another Shining Moment in the Annals of U.S. Cycling

Minutes after finishing third overall and first among Americans at the CoreStates USPro Championship road race in Philadelphia last June, George Hincapie stood atop the winners' podium, donned the stars-and-stripes jersey as the 1997 U.S. national champion, and hugged mom and dad. Then he was disqualified. According to race officials, the 23-year-old Tour de France veteran had flagrantly violated rules by drafting behind his team car after suffering a flat tire ten miles from the finish. Although Hincapie's U.S. Postal Service team manager Mark Gorski acknowledges he was warned more than once, he didn't figure the race itself was at stake. And why would he? "It's extremely rare for a rider to get kicked out of a race for drafting," says Jim Ochowicz, who spent ten years as team director of American squads 7-Eleven and Motorola. "It was an extreme verdict." That may be, but on race day the stars-and-stripes jersey sat unclaimed: Eighth-place finisher Bart Bowen, the national champion by default, didn't want it. "I came here to win the race," said Bowen, who finished 11 seconds behind overall winner Massimiliano Lelli of Italy, "but this is not the way I wanted it to happen."

As a testament to the west coast's notoriously short memory, the oil tanker Montebello has few challengers. Felled by a Japanese submarine off central California in 1941, the Montebello and its cargo — 3.1 million gallons of crude — vanished from the collective consciousness almost as quickly as it sank.

Would that it had disappeared from the floor of the Pacific as well. After languishing at a depth of 900 feet for more than 55 years, sitting among crustaceans and anemones

just a mile outside the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary, the Montebello was "discovered" late last year. Marine archaeologist Jack Hunter and his colleagues at the Central Coast Maritime Museum Association — poring through archives in an attempt to locate downed World War II-era battleships — read accounts of the tanker's demise and immediately recognized it as a potential environmental time bomb. A subsequent government-sponsored dive mission found the vessel, largely intact, six miles west of the town of Cambria.

Alas, it seems likely that this is precisely where the Montebello will remain, at least for the time being. Though officials at Monterey Bay, the nation's largest and arguably most ecologically diverse marine sanctuary, are none too thrilled to have enough crude to despoil 300 miles of coastline just beyond its boundaries, jurisdictionally the Montebello is a problem for the Coast Guard. And the military agency's position is simply to leave well enough alone. "It's not easy to get that stuff up from 900 feet," sighs Lieutenant Commander Phil Daniels, who says that the Coast Guard believes the spill danger from attempting to raise the tanker or siphon its contents outweighs that of a potential hull breech. "We have no plans to go down and remove oil."

A stance that, as you might imagine, has Hunter a bit piqued. This month, in a report to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which governs the Monterey Bay sanctuary, Hunter will suggest that the Coast Guard's refusal to even consider other options is irresponsible, to say the least. "I'm not predicting that there's going to be an immediate problem with this vessel, but I do see it as something we should be studying very closely," he explains. "I'll bet if there were three million gallons of crude oil sitting in the middle of Yosemite, somebody would be dealing with it."

Illustration by Matt Mahurin

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