Answer Man

Oil mess at Pearl Harbor goes beyond leaking USS Arizona

Q: There were lots of memorial programs about Pearl Harbor recently. But I have heard that the wreckage of the USS Arizona, which lies below the memorial there, is still leaking fuel oil into the bay and that it will continue to kill fish and krill for a long time. Is this true?

Ed Warner, of Edwardsville

A: Sadly, it is true and here’s a statistic to further boggle your mind: At its current estimated rate of leakage, the USS Arizona may continue to ooze oil for more than 500 years yet.

But you know what? Right now, the historic ship, on which nearly 1,200 servicemen lost their lives, should be the least of your worries when it comes to the environmental disaster that has hit Pearl Harbor since the U.S. Navy opened a naval base there in 1899. According to one count, the area has hundreds of documented areas of contamination that include millions of gallons of fuel spilled over the years.

So in the big picture, the Arizona leak is almost literally a drop in the bucket. Although nobody knows for sure, many estimates say the ship, which held 1.5 million gallons of oil, went down with about 500,000 gallons still on board. (The rest went up in smoke as the ship burned for nearly three days after the Japanese attack on that day that will live in infamy.) Currently, the ship is believed to be leaking about 9 quarts a day, which is why tourists who take the Pearl Harbor tour see that telltale rainbow sheen when they look at the battleship below the water. Given the estimated volume of oil and current rate of leakage, there’s enough gunk to trickle out for another 540 years.

However, some predict a calamity in the future. According to, Harvard microbiologist Ralph Mitchell has studied the bacteria that have been feeding off the ship’s oil leak. He determined that the bacteria were speeding the corrosion of the monument, which could lead to a “catastrophic” eruption of oil from the wreckage that could cause extensive damage to the island’s shoreline and disrupt military operations. Nevertheless, the National Park Service is reluctant to rectify the situation both because of the enormous cost and because work would disturb a hallowed war grave. In fact, visitors sometimes refer to the constant oil coating on the water as “tears of the Arizona” or “black tears.”

At the moment at least, the Arizona problem is minuscule in the scheme of things. Pearl Harbor was once known as Oahu’s breadbasket because it was a paradise for fishermen. But in 1992 the entire 12,600-acre Pearl Harbor Naval Complex was put on the Environmental Protection Agency’s Priority List of hazardous waste sites because of the base’s more than 700 areas of contamination. Six years later, the health department warned people against eating any shellfish or other fish caught in Pearl Harbor.

Just one example: Since World War II, about 5 million gallons of bunker fuel and other petroleum products have been leaking from a tank farm under Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam’s Halawa-Main Gate. That’s about half of the oil spill of the infamous 1989 Exxon Valdez catastrophe, and the underground plume covers about 20 acres — or 15 football fields — according to the U.S. Navy itself. But that’s just one of dozens of leaks reported over the years, including one of nearly 359,000 gallons of marine diesel fuel in 2007. In its defense, the Navy says it has been working with the EPA and the state of Hawaii since 1983 to monitor and address the situation, although little action seems to have been taken to address the mess.

▪  Holiday honors: Belleville maestro A. Dennis Sparger has another feather in his cap — and you’re invited to help him celebrate it this week.

The latest edition of BBC Music, which many regard as the world’s leading magazine of classical music, has included the Bach Society of St. Louis’ Christmas Candlelight Concert in its prestigious list of “20 Live Events for Christmas in North America.” This holiday treat, a St. Louis tradition since 1951, is set for 7:30 p.m. Thursday at Powell Hall on Grand, two blocks north of the Fox Theatre.

Sparger, who founded metro-east’s Masterworks Chorale in 1974, has been conducting the Bach Society for 30 years. This year’s concert will feature John Rutter’s beloved “Magnificat — My Soul Magnifies the Lord” featuring soprano Emily Birsan along with a performance by the St. Louis Children’s Choirs, plenty of familiar carols as led by assistant conductor (and Belleville native) Stephen Eros and, of course, the majestic candlelight procession. Tickets are $30-$75 and available through or 314-534-1700.

Earlier this year, the Bach Society became the first chorus to earn the Excellence in the Arts Award from the Arts & Education Council of Greater St. Louis. It also reached its goal of a million-dollar endowment to underwrite The A. Dennis Sparger Director and Conductor Chair in honor of his long tenure.

Today’s trivia

What famous entertainer helped raise more than 10 percent of the cost for the USS Arizona Memorial?

Answer to Saturday’s trivia: Paparazzi is the term now commonly used to describe those annoying hordes of photographers who simply must snap pictures of various celebrities every second of every day. But did you know the term comes directly from the name of Signore Paparazzo, a photographer in Federico Fellini’s film “La Dolce Vita”? In turn, “paparazzo” is an Italian dialect word for a noisy, buzzing mosquito. Before making the film, Fellini remembered a schoolmate nicknamed Paparazzo because he talked and moved around incessantly and named his film’s character accordingly.

Roger Schlueter: 618-239-2465, @RogerAnswer