27 July 2011

Update -- Navy´s ship disposal policy comes under fire

USS Mullinnix as it's getting sunk as part of naval tests in August 1992. 
Photo by USSMullinnix.org. 
"The path to science discovery and application does not always follow a straight line.  This is one such example.

For years the U.S. Navy has conducted tests of the explosive variety in an effort to make ships stronger and bombs more potent.

But since these tests tend to take place over open water, there’s collateral damage of the marine variety.  In particular, dolphins and turtles."

Two environmental groups have petitioned the U.S. EPA in an effort to end the practice of sinking old Navy ships as a means to dispose of them, the groups said.

The Basel Action Network (BAN) and the Sierra Club said decommissioned ships contain a host of toxic chemicals and pose serious threats to the marine environment when sunk. The Navy´s SINKEX program, short for sink exercise, allows the Navy to fire on inactive warships to practice gunnery and torpedo accuracy while also disposing of unwanted ships at sea. In the petition, the groups ask the EPA to re-evaluate the sink-exercise program.

Colby Self, green ship recycling campaign director for BAN, said that while the Navy´s 1999 agreement with the EPA forces the agency to strip the ships of liquid PCBs, it only requires them to make every effort to remove solid materials containing PCBs.

"Effectively, they are sinking large amounts of solid matrix PCBs with each SINKEX vessel," Self said.

Officials from the Navy did not return repeated phone calls for comment.

Self said the actual amount of solid materials containing PCBs is often unknown, but varies widely and could reach as high as 500 pounds. He said recycling the ships is a viable option as a means of disposing them.

There are six to eight companies in the U.S. capable of recycling the ships, including Texas-based Esco Marine Co. Kris Wood, vice president of Esco Marine, called sinking navy vessels "nonsensical."

"Commodity prices are such that these vessels have an inherent value as a recyclable commodity," he said. "But aside from the fact that it makes financial sense to recycle these things, it´s an absolute waste of resources to just go sinking them in the ocean."

He said that 8,000 tons of steel goes down with the ship, along with 500 tons of nonferrous metals.

"It´s not good stewardship of our resources to go and throw them in the ocean," Wood said, adding that his facility, like other ship recyclers, is not at capacity and could accept more work, thus creating green jobs.

Since 1996, the Navy has averaged nine sink exercises a year. Four were sunk in 2010, but none have been sunk so far this year. Most are sunk off the shores of Hawaii, but some have occurred off Florida and southern California, according to the Navy´s website. The Navy has proposed sinking vessels in the Gulf of Alaska, something BAN opposes.

"It´s pristine waters there," Self said. "Alaska is particularly concerning because there is a large commercial fishing industry up there and there are a lot of fish harvested there."

The groups said the fish could become contaminated.

"After more than a decade of unchecked dumping and sinking of old naval vessels, the Navy´s SINKEX program has raised toxic PCB and contaminant levels in our marine environment, threatening our waters, food supply, local fishing industries and human health," said Michael Brune, executive director of the Sierra Club, in a statement.

The public is not allowed to view the sinking exercises, which must be conducted at least 50 nautical miles from shore and in water at least 6,000 feet deep, according to the Navy´s website. The site says that the program provides numerous benefits, including real-world targets in at-sea, live-fire exercises. It also allows for integration of military units in the air, on the surface and below the surface to integrate, plan and execute tactical missions.

BAN said data from the USS Oriskany, sunk to make a reef off the coast of Florida in 2006, shows that PCBs were leached into the surrounding waters at a far greater rate than was anticipated.

The concern of hazardous materials going into the ocean when a vessel is sunk is very real, Wood said.

"You are never going to be able to get everything out of there," Wood said. "The hazardous materials are going down there when they blow them up."

Contact Waste & Recycling News reporter Jeremy Carroll at jcarroll@crain.com or 313-446-6780

Source: Waste Recycling News. By Jeremy Carroll. 25 July 2011

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