The Feds Battle a Planned Titanic Expedition—Again

RMS Titanic Inc. and US government engaged in a nearly identical battle in 2020
By Newser Editors and Wire Services
Posted Aug 30, 2023 10:45 AM CDT
The Feds Battle a Planned Titanic Expedition—Again
The Titanic leaves Southampton, England, on her maiden voyage, April 10, 1912.   (AP Photo, File)

The US government is trying to stop a planned expedition to recover items of historical interest from the sunken Titanic. The expedition, tentatively planned for May 2024, is being organized by RMS Titanic Inc., the Georgia-based firm that owns the salvage rights to the world's most famous shipwreck. The company exhibits artifacts that have been recovered from the wreck site at the bottom of the North Atlantic, from silverware to a piece of the Titanic's hull. The battle in the US District Court in Norfolk, Virginia, which oversees Titanic salvage matters, hinges on federal law and a pact with Great Britain to treat the sunken Titanic as a memorial to the more than 1,500 people who died, reports the AP.

"RMST is not free to disregard this validly enacted federal law, yet that is its stated intent," US lawyers argued in court documents filed Friday. They added that the shipwreck "will be deprived of the protections Congress granted it." The company said it plans to take images of the entire wreck, including "inside the wreck, where deterioration has opened chasms sufficient to permit a remotely operated vehicle to penetrate the hull without interfering with the current structure." RMST said it would recover artifacts from the debris field and "may recover free-standing objects inside the wreck."

Those could include "objects from inside the Marconi room"—which holds the ship's radio—"but only if such objects are not affixed to the wreck itself. ... At this time, the company does not intend to cut into the wreck or detach any part of the wreck." The company said it would "work collaboratively" with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the US agency that represents the public's interest in the wreck. But RMST said it does not intend to seek a permit. US government lawyers said the firm can't proceed without one, arguing that RMST needs approval from the secretary of commerce, who oversees the NOAA.

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The firm has argued in previous cases that only the court in Norfolk has jurisdiction over the wreck and reiterated that stance in a statement to the AP on Tuesday, noting that the court granted its salvage rights three decades ago. Since then, the firm said it has recovered and conserved thousands of Titanic artifacts, which millions of people have seen. In 2020, the US government and RMST engaged in a nearly identical legal battle over a proposed expedition that could have cut into the wreck in order to retrieve the radio. In May 2020, US District Judge Rebecca Beach Smith gave RMST permission, writing that the radio is historically and culturally important and could soon be lost to decay. A few weeks later, the US government filed an official legal challenge against the 2020 expedition, but the proceedings were cut short by the coronavirus pandemic and never fully played out.

(More Titanic stories.)

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