Texas Parks and Wildlife Uses BP Oil Spill Money to Sink a Ship (and Create a Reef)

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British Petroleum oil spill money is being used to put another foreign object into the Gulf of Mexico.

The catch is, this time around, it's something that will actually be good for the marine life living in the waters off the Texas Gulf Coast. The Texas Parks & Wildlife Rigs-to-Reefs program got some of the funding to make up for some of the environmental damage caused by the infamous BP Oil Spill in 2010, and it's using the money to buy and sink a ship.

No, really. 

Usually, the Rigs-to-Reefs program focuses on, well, turning old oil rigs into reefs for marine wildlife. Before the Rigs-to-Reefs program was created, companies would install offshore rigs, use them and then haul the structures back to shore once the work was done. However, it was noticed that fish and other marine life congregated around these rigs and used them as artificial reefs because the seabed of the Gulf of Mexico is mostly barren substrate, according to Texas Parks & Wildlife Rigs-to-Reef Program Director Dale Shively. 

So state lawmakers passed legislation for the Rigs-to-Reefs programs, setting up a deal that would benefit both marine life in the Gulf and oil companies. Instead of hauling the rigs to shore where they'd be scrapped, the new program allowed companies to give the old rigs to Texas Parks & Wildlife, where they officially became artificial reefs. It's a program that lets the reefs formed on the old rigs remain undisturbed, plus the companies save the money they'd have had to shell out in bringing the rigs to shore since the program only requires that they donate half the money they'd have spent dismantling an offshore rig. 

Money from the company donations is being used along with BP oil spill money and funds from grants to pay for the project, which will cost about $4 million.

This isn't the first ship to be deliberately sunk in the Gulf. Back in the 1970s, about a dozen World War II Liberty Ships (the vessels were so ungainly that FDR nicknamed them "ugly ducklings") were sent to the bottom in the Gulf. Then, in 2007, the Texas Clipper was sunk to create a reef through the Texas Parks & Wildlife Program.

It may sound odd for someone to be out there sinking ships, but Shively says that putting these large crafts on the Gulf floor is actually good for the entire marine ecosystem. “Any time we can take something like a ship, that's an opportunity we can't miss,” Shively says. “Ships are made of hard metal, they're large, they're more stable than old oil rigs and a ship can last for 100 years or more. Every storm you have come through shifts things around, and some structures don't survive. But something as large as a ship stays right there.” 

While turning rigs into reefs is definitely a handy way to recycle the old offshore structures, Shively explains that sinking a ship to the bottom of the Gulf creates even more opportunities for marine wildlife to set up reefs. It also gives divers some really nifty spots to explore, though you can go into one of these sunken ships only if you've been properly trained to do so.

In the coming months, Texas Parks & Wildlife is going to purchase a vessel, most likely a cargo ship, and then workers will spend about six months stripping the vessel of anything that Environmental Protection Agency regulators might object to going into the water, including certain types of pipe and lead paint. (They've been working on getting a particular cargo ship currently docked in Trinidad, but they've run into title issues that somehow are being disputed in both Venenzuela and Panama, Doug Jackson, senior projects manager at Matrix, the company contracted to handle getting the ship sink-worthy, explains.)

Once the vessel has been scraped clean, according to guidelines from the EPA and other agencies, the boat will be towed a little more than 60 miles away from the Galveston coast to a spot relatively close to the Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary, a triad of coral reef systems popular with divers that's located about 100 miles off the Gulf Coast. Then the crew will sink the ship, potentially using explosives to help it drop to the floor of the Gulf more quickly.

When it's all done, the sunken ship will gradually turn into another artificial reef, a hive of marine life that divers can visit. 

And really, compared to the other things BP oil spill settlement money is supposed to go to — including a minor league baseball park in Mississippi and a beachfront hotel and conference center in Alabama, according to Bloomberg — this project is looking pretty good. 

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