Published: 06:00, 23 September 2021
| Updated: 16:41, 29 September 2021
Companies are being asked if they would have the know-how to assess the bombs on board the sunken SS Richard Montgomery.
The liberty ship has remained a danger to shipping in the Thames Estuary since it sank off Sheerness on August 20, 1944, loaded with explosives.
Last May, the Salvage and Marine Operations (Salmo) Team at the Ministry of Defence (MoD) asked companies to tender for the job of removing the American ship's distinctive masts, which have acted as a warning to shipping for more than 75 years.
It followed the findings of an underwater survey of the wreck, published in 2019, which assessed the structure.
A post on the government’s website at the time said a contract notice for the work, subject to funding, was ready to be issued last April, with the intention of awarding the contract in September last year.
But, in July, the Department for Transport (DfT) confirmed that this date had slipped to September this year, with a view to the mast cutting starting in 2022.
However, an advert posted on a website called Sell2Wales, by the MoD on behalf of the DfT, states the estimated date of publication of the contract notice is October 31, 2021.
It also suggests that the contractor could potentially end up removing unexploded ordnance (UXO) from the wreckage, as well as cut off its masts.
The advert reads: “The Salmo team, part of the UK MoD acting on behalf of the DfT, have a requirement for the provision of unexploded ordnance services in order to support the successful delivery of the SS Richard Montgomery mast removal requirement.
"These services are likely to include, but not confined to, survey of seabed area in vicinity of wreck site, identification and removal for safe disposal of UXO, and confirmatory survey that area is safe from UXO."
The DfT has, however, confirmed there is no contract in place for any bomb removal – but it says it's carrying out market research to see if this is required.
The ordnance clearing contract will be based on the principles of the mast cutting contract, which defines the area in which a survey needs to be undertaken. It must also be considered in conjunction with the mast cutting contractor as part of the process of managing risks.
The DfT is looking at this project now because the latest surveys indicated the wreck was degrading and the masts were putting pressure on the deck plating.
This course of action was recommended by an expert panel and is part of the department’s strategy to manage the risks posed by the wreck to protect the public.
The DfT says it is working with Kent's Local Resilience Forum to ensure any issues are assessed and appropriate mitigations put in place.
It will also share further information about what’s going to be happening to inform the public closer to the time at which the contractors will be on site, but there is said to be a significant amount of work to be done before it gets to that stage.
MP Gordon Henderson, who represents Sittingbourne and Sheppey, has reassured the public that the best course of action is to cut off the ship's masts and, he says, he would be notified should its delicate cargo be touched.
He said: "They [(the DfT) would discuss it with me as they have done continually over the last 11 years. If there was any intention of them removing the ordnance, or any problem with the super structure, they would be notifying me."
He added: "The DfT has told me they are in the process of rewarding a contract for a company to undertake a risk assessment on the current situation prior to the awarding of the contract. I don't think there is any intention to remove the remaining ordnance at this stage.
"If there was any inclination to do that, there would be no reason to remove the masts - what would be the point of doing that first? I think it's just all part and parcel of the risk assessment relating to the removal of the masts."
Mr Henderson said the rusting masts had to be removed "to protect the wreck; the bulkhead and the cargo".