August 27, 2010

Treasure hunter plans to salvage mercury from wreck

By Edward D. Murphy
Staff Writer

Treasure hunter Greg Brooks, who led a trouble-plagued relief mission to Haiti last winter, has set his sights on a salvage job with both business and humanitarian components.

Brooks, who is from Gorham, wants to put his sea salvage skills to work removing an estimated 16,000 pounds of valuable mercury from a 66-year-old shipwreck off the coast of Maine. He contends the mission would defuse a ticking environmental time bomb, though scientists have concluded the wreck is best left undisturbed.

The federal government prohibits any activity near the ship, but Brooks is hoping he can get the ban lifted. If he does, he would gain access not only to the mercury, but also to other cargo, including what he says is copper-platinum wire worth $200 million.

The wreck is the Empire Knight, a British freighter that struck an underwater ledge, split in two and sunk in a blizzard near Boon Island, off the coast of York, in February 1944. In 1990, the Coast Guard learned the ship carried 221 flasks of toxic mercury.

Divers subsequently recovered 1,230 pounds of the mercury and 2,200 pounds of contaminated debris, but determined that another 16,000 pounds of mercury had escaped from the casks and was in a cargo hold near the stern of the ship. Officials eventually decided it would be better to leave the mercury alone, concluding that in time, sediment will cover the ship, burying it and its toxic cargo.

Attempting to remove the mercury, officials said, could result in the mercury escaping into the sea and contaminating the food chain.

In the late 1990s, as salvage companies tried to stake claims to the wreck, federal officials created an environmental safety zone around it, prohibiting diving, salvage and other activities.

Brooks thinks it's time to lift the limits and allow him to remove the mercury, via a high-pressure vacuum and filter system. That could also clear the way for him to salvage what he believes is copper-platinum wire that was included in the wartime cargo and could be what he terms "semi-valuable" -- to the tune of $200 million or so.

Officials have said they believe the wire is copper only and pegged its value at about $1 million in the mid-1990s, although prices for the metal have risen since then.

Brooks said his research suggests the more valuable wire is aboard and added that he also believes there's a "secret cargo" of coins in the wreck. Those coins, he said, could be worth $10 million to $15 million for the metal content alone, and more than that if there are coins that are valuable to collectors -- which is likely, given the age of the wreck.

Brooks said he has been making the rounds with state marine and environmental officials and has also talked with congressional aides, hoping to get the go-ahead to do a survey of the wreck using remote-controlled submersibles as the first step in what could be a salvage effort. But he doesn't feel like he's getting anywhere.

"Politically, it could be a nightmare for somebody," he said, if the survey reveals mercury has been seeping out while the official line has been to leave the wreck alone.

Even if the mercury is still contained, he says, the ship is certainly rusting and the potential for a catastrophe will continue to rise if nothing is done.

"I live and work on the ocean, and I don't want several tons of mercury floating around," he said. "Sticking your head in the sand will not make it go away."

Brooks is used to sticking his neck out rather than burying his head. After an earthquake devastated Haiti in January, he collected donations from Mainers, put them aboard his 220-foot salvage vessel, the Sea Hunter, and set off for Haiti.

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