Coast Guard officers from Terminal Island are helping oversee the survey of a sunken oil tanker torpedoed by a Japanese submarine 70 years ago just miles off the California coast.

Union Oil's S.S. Montebello was carrying an estimated 4 million gallons of crude oil when it was destroyed Dec. 23, 1941 by Imperial Japan's notorious sub "I-21" roughly six miles west of Cambria in central California.

The 38-man crew escaped on lifeboats under enemy gunfire, rowing nearly six hours before reaching land.

But the tanker was lost, dropping some 900 feet to the ocean floor.

Incredibly, the torpedo struck the ship's only compartment not loaded with oil or gasoline.

Stunned by an attack so close to the mainland and just weeks after the Pearl Harbor atrocity, the federal government was largely successful in silencing news of the incident, but reports did eventually surface.

Now, officials are conducting a two-week survey to determine whether the ship's hull - still loaded with oil - is structurally sound.

To date, no signs of leakage have been detected, and from previous dive operations it appears the hull remains intact.

But Coast Guard authorities aren't taking any chances. Concerns remain that the Montebello's hull could one day crack or deteriorate, spilling its crude onto local beaches.

Coast Guard Capt.


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Roger Laferriere, who has worked on oil spills and disaster relief in the Gulf of Mexico, is overseeing the operation.

Teams will study the wreckage, film operations and complete an initial report by the end of this month.

"It is our duty to ensure we gain good information about the Montebello so we can do our best to protect the marine environment," Laferriere said.

California Department of Fish and Game officials will also be on hand.

"This sampling and observation operation will provide the answers needed to truly assess what threat, if any, the Montebello poses," said Capt. Chris Graff of Fish and Game.

Unmanned submarines and other submersibles will retrieve oil and sediment samples from the ship and its surroundings.

More information on the operation and history of the S.S. Montebello is available at www.dfg.ca.gov/ospr/ Admin/Montebello.

Road work may cause delays

Repairs and repaving began Monday on a busy stretch of roadway near Harbor Department headquarters, and motorists are advised that traffic delays are likely.

The project, fully funded by the port, will continue into early 2012 in the area of Harbor Scenic Drive, Harbor Plaza and northbound Queens Highway.

The project is expected to provide smoother driving for the thousands of freight trucks and passenger cars using the roads daily.

Lane closures are expected, but streets will remain open during the work.

The port has set up an information line at 562-590-4167.

`Green' locomotives debut

Pacific Harbor Lines, a tiny railroad with 18 miles of track entirely inside the ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles, is installing and retrofitting its 23-strong locomotive fleet with some of the cleanest engines available.

By early 2012, the line is expected to complete its latest turnover with locomotives emitting nearly 96 percent less diesel particulates than trains servicing the ports just five years ago.

Aided by a $12 million grant from the South Coast Air Quality Management District, Pacific Harbor also expects the new engines to emit 38 percent less nitrogen oxides than the current fleet.

Pacific operates 23 locomotives at nine on-dock rail yards within the port complex. The company hauls goods to and from marine terminals before turning the freight over to Burlington Northern Santa Fe and Union Pacific, the railroads with track stretching from San Pedro Bay to points across the country.

kristopher.hanson@presstelegram.com, 562-499-1466