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Most shipwrecks pose only minor pollution threat

WASHINGTON -- Shipwrecks lying deep off America's coasts are more often historical artifacts than present-day threats due to leaking old oil tanks, a new federal report says.

While 87 of the ships -- most sunk during World War II by German submarines -- have the potential to leak tens of millions of gallons of oil, the report issued Monday concludes that "the scope of the problem is much more manageable than initially feared." "Our coastlines are not littered with 'ticking time bombs,' " government scientists wrote.

They note that only six of the 87 are likely to be serious enough to be disasters to local economies and coastlines, the report said.

Still the wrecks are hulking reminders of lost lives in war and the environmental mess of oil, especially to Frank Terry, who experienced them firsthand.

The first of two German torpedoes hit the oil tanker ship W.D. Anderson as it steamed along the Florida coast one late February night in 1942. Terry ran to the side, hurled himself over the railing and into the water. His boat was in flames and the 23-year-old was swimming for his life.

"I just wanted to get out of there," he recalled Monday from his home in Parkesburg, Pa.

The next day in the hospital he found out he was the sole survivor.

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And now, 71 years later, the federal report says Terry's old ship is not only one of the 87, but also one of the six likely worst cases. It's a gravesite for 35 souls, but also a potential despoiler of the tourist-dependent Florida coast because it may still have more than 5.6 million gallons of crude oil on board. Jupiter is the nearest city.

The overall picture, though, is not as bad as expected. The potential for pollution from the 87 shipwrecks is less than half the 200 million gallons the BP well spewed into the Gulf of Mexico in 2010 in that disaster, agency officials calculate.

There are about 20,000 shipwrecked vessels off the nation's coastlines, including one about 60 miles north of Montauk Point. Most of those either finished leaking long ago, ran on coal instead of oil, are too small or aren't near vulnerable U.S. land.

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