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Environmentalists Say Caribbean Wreck Endangering Rare Turtles

December 3, 1985

WASHINGTON (AP) _ The wreckage of an ocean ferry is leaking oil and threatening the nesting grounds of rare sea turtles, say environmentalists who want the government to remove the vessel from a coral reef west of Puerto Rico.

A dozen environmental groups have asked Transportation Secretary Elizabeth Dole to order the U.S. Coast Guard to begin salvage operations because, they say, the 330-foot ferry Regina continues to leak oil and is gradually breaking apart under a pounding surf.

The wreckage, which authorities say has been abandoned by its owner, has been the subject of numerous exchanges among federal agencies and the Puerto Rican government since the vessel ran aground last February off Mona Island between Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic.

Last month the Coast Guard ordered another look at the wreckage by air and afterward concluded the vessel posed no ″significant danger to life or the environment″ and, therefore, would not be removed.

But environmental groups as well as the Puerto Rican government disagree.

″It ran aground at probably the worst possible place,″ says Dean Wilkinson, a member of the environmental group, Greenpeace. Wilkinson said he recently spent five days on the island and aboard the wreckage.

Mona Island is located about 50 miles west of Puerto Rico and its pristine coral reef is one of the most significant nesting areas in the Caribbean for the endangered Hawksbill sea turtle as well as two other turtles that are becoming increasingly rare - the green and leatherback.

″The Regina has been causing damage and threatens further damage to the habitat of endangered and threatened sea turtles,″ says Milton Kaufmann, president of Monitor International, an umbrella group for a number of environmental organizations.

Mona Island, which is uninhabited except for a small group researching the nesting of the rare turtles, has been declared a protected refuge area by the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico. The environmentalists claim fuel and other oils from the Regina are coating the rocky shore and sandy beaches of the island where hundreds of the turtles lay their eggs.

They also say debris, including furniture, pipes, wood paneling, wires and even lifeboats, are breaking loose and damaging the reef and shore.

″The destruction of the foraging environment (of the turtles) continues daily,″ wrote Anastasia R. Kontos, a researcher from the University of Georgia who is studying the turtles’ nesting habits. In a letter to Sen. Sam Nunn, D-Ga., he estimated a 65 percent decline in turtle nesting activity this year and asked for congressional assistance to get the wreckage removed.

The Regina, a 3,900-ton ship capable of carrying 1,300 passengers and crew and 170 cars, veered from its normal lane of travel between Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic last Feb. 15 and ran aground on the coral that surrounds Mona Island.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers last February ordered its owners to remove the vessel, but the effort was quickly abandoned. Since then, the environmental groups as well as the Puerto Rico Department of Natural Resources have tried to get the federal government to remove the vessel, arguing that federal environmental laws require such action.

But the U.S. Corps of Engineers says it does not have jurisdiction because the vessel is not blocking a navigable channel, a claim also in dispute, and the Coast Guard says the environmental threat is not severe enough to invoke provisions under which it would pay for the vessel’s removal.

Meanwhile, the Puerto Rican government says it does not have the estimated $1 million it would need to undertake salvage operations.

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