Save Our Ship: Titanic Bill Seeks to Protect 'Hallowed Ground'

Senate bill seeks to authorize Department of Commerce to protect the Titanic.

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This weekend marks the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic, one of the worst maritime disasters in history. Over 1,500 people died after the ship—which had been designed to be unsinkable—hit an iceberg off Newfoundland and sank to the bottom of the North Atlantic.

[See pictures of a cruise commemorating the Titanic's voyage.]

But ever since the wreck was found in 1985, no one has figured out a way to protect the site.

The Titanic rests in international waters, leaving it in a grey legislative area since no country can claim full responsibility for it. Looting of the site has become an issue since Robert Ballard and his team discovered the wreck, with privately-funded teams taking paying customers down to the wreck in mini submersibles. Now, American lawmakers want to step in to protect the site.

The R.M.S. Titanic Maritime Memorial Preservation Act of 2012, introduced in the Senate by Massachusetts Democratic Sen. John Kerry and Georgia Republican Sen. John Isakson is aimed at updating protection of what they consider to be a maritime memorial and grave site of unique historical significance.

According to an official statement from Kerry, the bill would expand on 1986 legislation protecting the Titanic by giving the Department of Commerce authority to defend the wreck site from salvage and intrusive research.

"It's hallowed ground, not just some underwater area to be poked at or damaged for commercial reasons," Kerry said in the statement. "This bill provides the authority necessary to help ensure the site of the Titanic is kept intact."

The proposal also recommends the establishment of a Titanic-specific advisory council to conduct regular research on what to do about problems facing the site.

Fascination with the ocean liner has persisted since the ship sank in 1912. As it went down, the almost 900-foot ship broke into two, scattering artifacts and debris over a 15 square miles of seabed. After its discovery, private companies in Russia and France funded submersible trips down to the site. These excursions are still running, and a ticket for a trip to the wreckage can cost up to $60,000.

Apparently, for that price, many thought that they were owed a souvenir or two. In 2004, Ballard accused French and Russian companies of removing artifacts like the ship's bell and mast beacon. He accused them and others who have visited the site to attempt to salvage chunks of the ship of treating the Titanic like "a freak show at the county fair."

Looting aside, the Titanic faces another, larger problem—rust. One hundred years of submersion in salt water has caused massive corrosion to the ship, as sulfate-reducing bacteria slowly nibbles away at the iron. Rusticles—long, thin formations of rust similar to icicles—cover the Titanic, indications of the accelerating oxidation. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the hull and structure of the ship is in danger of collapsing within the next 50 years.

On Saturday, 100 years since it sunk, the Titanic will be eligible to be listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, a designation that would carry protective measures by imposing fines and other civil penalties on anyone who disturbs the site.