Building an estuary airport close to sunken warship branded “bonkers”
10:00 22 June 2012
SS Richard Montgomery wreck off the Sheerness coast contains thousands of bombs
Almost 70 years ago American cargo ship the SS Richard Montgomery grounded on the sandbank off Sheerness while en route to the UK loaded with explosives.
Despite a major salvage attempt and the removal of half of the munitions load, the vessel flooded completely and efforts were abandoned leaving 1,400 explosives still onboard.
The sunken warship has since remained on the sandbank close to the Medway approach channel and to the east of the Isle of Gran, near to where Mayor of London Boris Johnson and architect Lord Foster are looking to build a giant hub airport.
Campaigners argue that constructing such a development so close to a wreck loaded with explosives is madness, with co-chair of the Lib Dem parliamentary party committee on transport, Julian Huppert, calling it “bonkers”.
His comments followed last month’s release of the latest survey report into the condition of the wreck by the Department for Transport.
It found that while there had only been a small deterioration between 2009 and 2010, it would be difficult to make long term predictions on the future stability of the site due to the “dynamic nature” of the surrounding environment.
Three key factors were highlighted that would affect the future stability and deterioration of the wreck site; the strength of the hull structure, the local environment around the wreck and the condition of the munitions.
The DfT said the risk of an explosion was “remote” but this latest survey prompted an outcry by Mr Huppert, MP for Cambridge.
“This report shows the ship’s slow deterioration is continuing with the lethal cargo still on board,” he said.
“This must surely put an end to the bonkers idea of building an airport in the Thames estuary.
“Just last month the Royal Navy had to destroy a wartime mine found in the estuary because of the ‘significant risk to public safety’.
“If this cargo ship was disrupted by construction the explosion would be 2,000 times larger, it would blow out every window in Sheerness, and create a 16ft wave just outside the capital.
“The last time we tried to move a similar wreck it exploded. Without a credible plan to deal with this mess there’s no way Boris’ plans will ever get off the ground.”
Ukip leader and MEP for Kent Nigel Farage, from Westerham, called the proposed development insane.
Writing for KoS he said: “Perhaps it’s me being picky, but I wouldn’t like to travel from an airport, let alone work there, which is in the vicinity of a deadly sunken ship from World War Two.
“An investigation in 2004 concluded that a collision, an attack or even the shifting of the cargo of high explosives in the tide could cause detonation, resulting in a 16ft tidal wave, wiping out Southend and breaking every window in Sheerness.”
Campaigners from Stop Estuary Airport have also expressed fears over an airport being developed next to a sunken warship.
In a structural survey of the vessel in 2009 by the Maritime and Coastguard Agency, concerns were raised about deterioration in one of the holds containing thousands of bombs.
But little change was seen in a further examination in 2010.
A spokesman for the Mayor of London said the SS Montgomery would need to be considered.
He stressed, however, that engineers had found the wreck would not prevent construction of an airport.
A DfT spokeswoman said the most recent survey showed the vessel continued to remain in a stable condition and that the risk of any explosion was still remote.
“However, as activity in the estuary continues to increase – including construction of a new container port – it is only right that we consider the options for ensuring the safety of those in the area,” she said.
She added that no decisions had been taken about any future work on the ship and that the matter was completly unrelated to the ongoing development of the aviation strategy.