COLUMBIA — A Cold War-era vessel could be sunk off South Carolina's shores as an artificial reef, ending years of wrangling over what to do with the corroding steel submarine that's been part of Patriots Point Naval and Maritime Museum's fleet for the past four decades.
The S.C. House's $9 billion spending plan for the fiscal year starting July 1 includes $2.7 million to strip the submarine Clamagore of all environmental pollutants, as well as pieces that will become part of a memorial, then sink the 74-year-old submarine somewhere off South Carolina's coastline. Exactly where hasn't been determined.
"It will be a fishing bonanza," said Rep. Bill Whitmire, R-Walhalla, chairman of the House budget-writing panel for museums and schools.
Those backing the plan include the state Department of Natural Resources, which would help pick the spot for its last mission as a fishing ground, spokesman Robert McCullough said.
But many Navy veterans adamantly oppose the idea of sinking the last-of-its-kind vessel, initially assigned to Key West and later Charleston, over the Clamagore's 30-year military career.
Built in 1945, the diesel-powered sub was in the Panama Canal, on its way to battle in the South Pacific, when World War II ended. The 322-foot-long sub was twice updated before being decommissioned in 1975. She became a state-owned floating museum six years later.
In 1989, the Clamagore was designated a National Historic Landmark as the lone survivor among the WWII-era subs that received that last round of equipment upgrades in the early '60s.
"If you sink this one, there is no more," said Thomas Lufkin, a retired submariner and chairman of the Clamagore Restoration and Maintenance Association, which seeks to preserve the ship. "If South Carolina is willing to spend any money, why not fix it up and keep it?"
Patriots Point Director Mac Burdette said he understands sailors' passion for the ship, but the tourist attraction in Mount Pleasant — a state agency funded by ticket sales — can't afford to keep the Clamagore in its fleet.
People come primarily to see the aircraft carrier Yorktown, the WWII-era ship he calls "the center ring of our three-ring circus," and it needs $50 million worth of work over the next 20 years, he said.
Patriots Point still owes the state $8 million, which it must start paying back next year, following a $13 million restoration of the destroyer Laffey, also a WWII-era boat, he said.
Restoring the Clamagore would cost about $7 million, to include removing and replacing all of the corroded steel, replacing the valves and painting the whole ship, Burdette said, citing the agency's updated estimate.
"We have a business responsibility that’s often hard for Navy veterans to understand," said Burdette, who is retiring this summer.
The Clamagore wouldn't be so deteriorated if the state had taken care of it as promised in 1981, Lufkin said. Still, he insists the $7 million estimate is overblown.
Officials at Patriots Point have been trying to find the Clamagore a new home since shortly after Burdette came aboard a decade ago. Unfortunately, other museums didn't want the submarine, he said.
The agency's board thought it had a plan to send the submarine to Florida to be an underwater memorial and diving destination.
In 2017, Palm Beach County officials agreed to spend $1 million toward sinking it off their coast, but Artificial Reefs International — which contracted with officials in both states — could never raise the other $3 million for the effort. The company's last extended contract with Patriots Point ended in January.
Something must be done before a hurricane sends the Clamagore to the ocean floor in a way no one wants, Burdette said.
"This sub has become a liability. We can’t run from this responsibility. Something really bad is going to happen, and we’ll all get a black eye, and then it will cost us more to get it off the bottom," he said.
About $1 million of the budget plan's $2.7 million allocation would cover stripping the Clamagore of toxins that could harm marine life, including asbestos-coated wiring, chipping lead paint and fuel that remains in its tanks.
Removing the 504 lead batteries, which weigh 1,000 pounds each, will require cutting off part of the ship's corroded top and lifting them out with a massive crane, he said.
Other costs include taking apart and then restoring part of the marina, just to get the Clamagore out and towed to a dry dock for work; removing pieces inside for other museums and a land memorial to the submarine at Patriots Point; then safely getting the shell off the coast and sinking it so that it lands upright on the bottom, Burdette said.
A last-resort option would be to scrap the historic vessel as a hunk of metal, but the agency's board decided "that would be a disrespectful end to a brave ship and the sailors who served on her," he said.
"She’ll become a fisheries management reef for many, many generations to come," he said. "That’s a much more fitting end."
The plan to sink the Clamagore is far from a done deal.
Sen. Stephen Goldfinch, R-Murrells Inlet, is pushing to keep the $2.7 million in the Senate's spending proposal for 2019-20.
A former commercial spearfisherman, Goldfinch said the state's sandy coastline is in danger of overfishing as the population soars.
"We need to put it right out there in the (underwater) desert. There's literally a 20-mile-wide swath of sand that provides no habitat, no marine life" along the entire coastline, he said. Whenever fishermen find a rare shipwreck or other artificial reef, "they just wipe it out. Every piece of structure we have offshore gives marine life the opportunity to proliferate."