The audio tour of Pearl Harbor, narrated by actress Jamie Lee Curtis, instructs visitors to the USS Arizona memorial not to throw coins into the water because they could harm the environment.

But there’s no discussion of the environmental fallout from the half-gallon of oil that has leaked from the USS Arizona every day since 1941.

A federal report found the type of oil leaking from the memorial is particularly toxic and environmentalists are concerned about the effect on marine life living in the harbor. But there’s no plan to stop the leak.

Episode 12 of Civil Beat’s environmental podcast dives beneath the waves to explore the ecological impact of the leaking oil, why the flow hasn’t been stopped and how the issue goes beyond just one battleship.

Joint Base Pearl Harbor Hickam USS Arizona Memorial with oil slick.
A perpetual oil slick flows under the USS Arizona Memorial at Pearl Harbor in Honolulu. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

During the 1941 attack all eight American battleships in the harbor were hit with torpedoes, spilling thousands of gallons of oil into the ocean. The USS Arizona had just been topped off with oil the day before, and the subsequent fire burned for two days after the attack.

“It was an environmental disaster here,” said Daniel Martinez, historian with the National Park Service at Pearl Harbor.

It’s believed between 14,000 and 64,000 gallons of oil have leaked from the USS Arizona since the attack, and the National Park Service estimates it could continue to leak for 500 years.

Oil is also leaking from the USS Utah, a smaller battleship sunk during the attack, but the Navy and National Park Service don’t know how much is leaking every day or how much oil is left on the ship.

Environmental Impacts

“People talk about how beautiful it is to see the oil glisten on the top of the water and how it reminds them of the lives lost,” said Maxx Phillips, an environmental attorney and Hawaii director for the Center for Biological Diversity. “All it does is make me think about the lives lost after the fact, everything from our bacteria all the way up the food chain to our sharks are endangered mammals that are living with this toxicity.”

Seahorses were first observed on the deck of the USS Arizona in 2005. National Park Service

There’s coral growing on the ship, and seahorses and sea turtles swim alongside the boat and onto the deck. A young hammerhead shark recently made the wreckage his home as has a black-tipped reef shark.

The Navy and National Park Service pointed to the growing amount of biodiversity as a sign that “the leaking oil is not a significant concern.”

But Phillips said more life in the harbor means more animals are being exposed to the oil.

“Just because species are finding ways to still survive doesn’t mean that they’re thriving,” she said. “Scientists are all clear that exposing corals to even a small amount of oil for an extended period of time can be just as harmful as a large amount of oil at one time.”

Lydia Robertson, a public affairs official with the U.S. Navy, said in an email that the Navy, National Park Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration have all completed studies about the USS Arizona and USS Utah and are aware of the environmental impact of the oil.

But Katie Bojakowski, a National Park ranger and shipwreck expert at Pearl Harbor, said she didn’t know of any studies about the long-term environmental impact of the oil.

Scientists collect oil from the interior of the USS Arizona. National Park Service

NOAA’s Brady Phillips said the same. The Navy and USFWS didn’t respond to Civil Beat’s requests to review any studies.

A 2008 report from the Department of Defense did find that the type of oil leaking from the USS Arizona was particularly harmful, resulting “in a long-term environmental persistence and increases the exposure of toxic components to the surrounding environment.”

It went on to explain that more research is “needed to inform management decisions that address the actual environmental impact of the Arizona oil release.”

Even a small amount of oil can negatively affect the respiratory, immune and hormone systems of sea turtles, sharks and sea birds.

“The entire reef ecosystem really suffers from not just big catastrophic events like oil spills, but even smaller doses, over an amount of time like at Pearl Harbor, can lead to just horrible impacts,” Phillips said.

Why Hasn’t It Been Cleaned Up?

“If Arizona were any other ship in any other harbor, the oil may have already have been removed,” said the 2008 DOD report. The report goes onto to detail how the Navy and other private companies have the technology to remove oil from sunken ships, and have done so on shipwrecks around the world, including in far harder-to-reach areas than the shallow harbor where the USS Arizona lies.

But the USS Arizona isn’t just any ship in any harbor. It’s an active military grave.

Visitors to the USS Arizona Memorial can read names of the men who died during the 1941 attack. Claire Caulfield/Civil Beat/2020

More than 900 of the 1,177 servicemen who died aboard the USS Arizona remain entombed on the ship. Additionally, more than 40 men who survived the initial attack chose to have their urns placed on the ship.

Some historians have called the oil “the black tears of the Arizona,” and Martinez, the National Park Service historian, said the oil has a moving effect on the 1.7 million people who visit the memorial every year.

Hear More

“At this moment you are smelling and seeing the oil that’s been leaking from the ships since 7 December 1941,” he said. “It’s almost like a time machine that’s taking you back.”

A lot of oil is trapped in the hull or in fuel tanks which are now lodged deep in the muddy bottom of the harbor, making fuel removal difficult and expensive.

“We just don’t know if the oil is creating pressure in the tanks that’s helping the structural integrity of the ship,” said the National Park Service’s Bojakowski. “I wish I had more studies but I do know that there are a lot of really dedicated government employees who are very passionate about the environment and cultural resources and are working hard to kind of answer those (questions).

Robertson, with the Navy, also said removing the oil could harm the many artifacts onboard the ship, disturb the bodies of victims or the urns of survivors interred in the ship.

Other battleships that were sunk or seriously damaged during the 1941 attack were re-floated. The USS Arizona and USS Utah were salvaged for parts and in the 1960’s several tons of the USS Arizona were cut away.


That’s why Rudy Socha, a veteran of the U.S. Marine Corps, thinks the military could find a way to remove the oil without disturbing any bodies.

“What they need to do is actually remove the petroleum products that are on the vessels,” he said.

Socha is the founder of Wounded Nature — Working Veterans, a nonprofit for active servicemen, veterans, their families and other volunteers to help the environment.

Their focus is on removing abandoned boats because they leak fuel, sewage and other harmful chemicals into the environment. Last year volunteers with Wounded Nature — Working Veterans removed 31 abandoned boats from the shorelines of South Carolina.

Socha has seen firsthand how fuel oil can negatively impact wildlife, which is why he wants the military to stop the leaks as soon as possible.

“Are We Doomed? And Other Burning Environmental Questions” is funded in part by grants from the Environmental Funders Group of the Hawaii Community Foundation and the Frost Family Foundation.

Want to hear more? Check out Civil Beat's other podcasts.

Are We Doomed?! And Other Burning Environmental Questions
Are We Doomed?! And Other Burning Environmental Questions

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