Coast Guard fires on Japanese ghost ship

MARK THIESSEN RACHEL D'ORO Associated Press Published:

OVER THE GULF OF ALASKA (AP) -- The U.S. Coast Guard unleashed cannon fire Thursday at a Japanese vessel set adrift by last year's tsunami, stopping the ship's long, lonely voyage across the Pacific Ocean.

A Coast Guard cutter fired on the abandoned 164-foot Ryou-Un Maru in the waters of the Gulf of Alaska and more than 150 miles from land, spokesman Paul Webb said. He said it could take at least an hour to sink it.

The Japanese ship, which was dislodged by last year's tsunami and has no lights or communications system, has a tank that could carry more than 2,000 gallons of diesel fuel. Officials don't know how much fuel, if any, is aboard.

Either way, the government says the move is safer environmentally than letting the ship continue to drift or become a danger to other vessels. "It's less risky than it would be running into shore or running into (maritime) traffic," Webb said.

The ship had been destined for scrapping when the Japan earthquake struck, so there is no cargo on board, according to Webb. He said he doesn't know who owns the Ryou-Un Maru, which has been traveling about 1 mile per hour in the past days.

Earlier, Webb said the cutter was going to fire the cannons from several hundred feet away. The goal is to punch holes in the Ryou-Un Maru and sink it. A Coast Guard C-130 plane crew will monitor the operation.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency studied the problem and decided it is safer to sink the ship and let the fuel evaporate in the open water.

The Coast Guard will warn other ships to avoid the area, and will observe from an HC-130 Hercules airplane.

The vessel has been adrift from Hokkaido, Japan, since it was launched by the tsunami caused by the magnitude-9.0 earthquake that struck Japan in March 2011. About 5 million tons of debris were swept into the ocean by the tsunami.

The Japan earthquake triggered the world's worst nuclear crisis since the Chernobyl accident in 1986, but Alaska state health and environmental officials have said there's little need to be worried that debris landing on Alaska shores will be contaminated by radiation.

They have been working with federal counterparts to gauge the danger of debris including material affected by a damaged nuclear power plant, to see if Alaska residents, seafood or wild game could be affected.

In January, a half dozen large buoys suspected to be from Japanese oyster farms appeared at the top of Alaska's panhandle and may be among the first debris from the tsunami.

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Associated Press writer Rob Gillies in Toronto contributed to this report. D'Oro reported from Anchorage, Alaska.