U.S. Attempts to Prevent Titanic Artifact Recovery

In order to be able to halt any expedition it deems unpleasant, Washington has petitioned the court to join the salvage dispute involving the illustrious liner as a party.
As part of a tribute to the more than 1,500 passengers and crew who had died in 1912, officials in Washington started looking for legislative authority to control entry to the infamous wreckage in the latter half of 1985, only weeks after the shattered remnants of the R.M.S. Titanic were discovered. The wreck was in international waters, thus Congress asked for a global agreement. Prior to that, Congress ruled that “no person should physically change, disturb, or salvage the R.M.S. Titanic.”

American salvors entered the discussion as governments discussed a draft accord. Numerous relics have been found over the years, such as a top hat, perfume bottles, and the deck bell that was sounded three times to alert the ship’s bridge of an approaching iceberg.

The federal government is currently pursuing legal action in an effort to exercise control over who may salvage artifacts from the illustrious liner and, potentially, to thwart an expedition scheduled for the following year. The decision was made in response to concerns highlighted by the June 18 Titan submarine catastrophe regarding access to the ship’s wreckage, which is located more than two miles beneath the surface of the North Atlantic. The legal action is especially noteworthy since it confronts the judicial branch against the legislative and executive departments of government.

Two United States attorneys submitted a motion to intervene in a decades-old salvage enterprise last Friday in a federal court in Norfolk, Virginia. The Virginia court, which specializes in shipwreck recovery cases, granted exclusive salvage rights to RMS Titanic, Inc., an Atlanta, Georgia-based company, in 1994. The business has organized a number of public exhibitions and has recovered numerous relics from the ship.

After the French-American team who discovered the Titanic in 1985 made no recovery claims, the business was awarded the salvage rights.

The federal government is currently attempting to join the salvage lawsuit as a party and halt any expeditions that it finds unacceptable. Every time “the company” asks the court for authorization to carry out additional artifact recovery, it asserts the legal right to have the Secretary of Commerce and its maritime division, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, or NOAA, grant or withhold permission to RMS Titanic.

Ole Varmer, a former lawyer for NOAA who specializes in shipwreck preservation, stated, “This has been a long time coming.” He went on to say that the federal government “has been compelled to intervene as a party and urge the court to enforce these laws.”

RMS Titanic intends to contest the government’s decision. “The company thinks it retains the right to keep up with salvage tasks at the wreck site, without looking for or obtaining approval from any third-parties other than the U.S. District Court which preserves jurisdiction over the wreck site,” said Brian A. Wainger, an attorney for RMS Titanic, in a statement.Because of the significant financial stakes for the firm, as well as basic concerns involving international agreements and how the many branches of the American government connect to one another on legal problems, legal experts predict that the litigation may last for years. They claim that the Supreme Court may eventually hear the matter.
“It’s a really interesting question,” said John D. Kimball, a partner at the Manhattan law firm Blank Rome and a professor of maritime law at New York University. The attempt by the government to uphold treaty clauses raises the issue of whose jurisdiction the wreck site falls under. The problems are complex, and the decisions will probably be appealed.

The legal dispute over who has access to the most well-known shipwreck in the world has been reopened as a result of Friday’s court papers in Virginia by U.S. attorneys Jessica D. Aber and Kent P. Porter. According to a U.S. filing, RMS Titanic “must comply” with the federal laws that implement the international agreement and apply for approval from the Commerce Department before making any recoveries.

The filing went on to say that the company’s defiance of the law “irreparably harms” the United States because it hinders implementation of the international agreement and keeps Washington from “fulfilling its legal obligations under federal law.”

The federal motion to intervene in the salvage case has not yet been decided by the court, and the corporation has not yet submitted a response.

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