United States

US Government Contemplates Ending Legal Battle Over Titanic Expedition

The US government is considering ending its legal battle over a planned expedition to the Titanic, which has raised concerns about violating laws treating the wreck as a gravesite

US Titanic Legal Battle Photo: AP

The US government could end its legal fight against a planned expedition to the Titanic, which has sparked concerns that it would violate a law that treats the wreck as a gravesite.

Kent Porter, an assistant US attorney, told a federal judge in Virginia on Wednesday that the US is seeking more information on revised plans for the May expedition, which have been significantly scaled back. Porter said the US has not determined whether the new plans would break the law.

RMS Titanic Inc., the Georgia company that owns the salvage rights to the wreck, originally planned to take images inside the ocean liner's severed hull and to retrieve artifacts from the debris field. RMST also said it would possibly recover free-standing objects inside the Titanic, including the room where the sinking ship had broadcast its distress signals.

The US filed a legal challenge to the expedition in August, citing a 2017 federal law and a pact with Great Britain to treat the site as a memorial. More than 1,500 people died when the Titanic struck an iceberg and sank in 1912.

The US argued last year that entering the Titanic — or physically altering or disturbing the wreck — is regulated by the law and agreement. Among the government's concerns is the possible disturbance of artifacts and any human remains that may still exist on the North Atlantic seabed.

In October, RMST said it had significantly pared down its dive plans. That's because its director of underwater research, Paul-Henri Nargeolet, died in the implosion of the Titan submersible near the Titanic shipwreck in June.

The Titan was operated by a separate company, OceanGate, to which Nargeolet was lending expertise. Nargeolet was supposed to lead this year's expedition by RMST.

RMST stated in a court filing last month that it now plans to send an uncrewed submersible to the wreck site and will only take external images of the ship.

“The company will not come into contact with the wreck,” RMST stated, adding that it “will not attempt any artifact recovery or penetration imaging.”

RMST has recovered and conserved thousands of Titanic artifacts, which millions of people have seen through its exhibits in the US and overseas. The company was granted the salvage rights to the shipwreck in 1994 by the US District Court in Norfolk, Virginia.

US District Judge Rebecca Beach Smith is the maritime jurist who presides over Titanic salvage matters. She said during Wednesday's hearing that the US government's case would raise serious legal questions if it continues, while the consequences could be wide-ranging.

Congress is allowed to modify maritime law, Smith said in reference to the US regulating entry into the sunken Titanic. But the judge questioned whether Congress can strip courts of their own admiralty jurisdiction over a shipwreck, something that has centuries of legal precedent.

In 2020, Smithgave RMST permission to retrieve and exhibit the radio that had broadcast the Titanic's distress calls. The expedition would have involved entering the Titanic and cutting into it.

The US government filed an official legal challenge against that expedition, citing the law and pact with Britain. But the legal battle never played out. RMST indefinitely delayed those plans because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Smith noted on Wednesday that time may be running out for expeditions inside the Titanic. The ship is rapidly deteriorating.