09 January 2012

Update: Groups sue U.S. EPA over Navy ship-sinking policy

Jan. 9 -- The U.S. EPA has failed to adequately regulate the dumping of toxic chemicals into the ocean through the Navy´s ship sinking program, a lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court alleges.

The Basel Action Network and Sierra Club, along with Earthjustice, filed the suit, saying the agency did not respond to its citizen petition by the required time limit. The trio petitioned the agency to regulate the Navy´s SINKEX program more stringently in July. The EPA responded that it received the petition, but did not respond by a statutory deadline.

The SINKEX program, short for sink exercise, allows the Navy to use decommissioned ships as live target practice in the open ocean.

"We were hopeful that the EPA would respond thoroughly [to the petition]," said Colby Self, green ship recycling campaign coordinator with BAN. "They opted to not respond at all."

The Navy has a permit and agreement with the EPA to perform the ship-sinking exercises and must complete environmental remediation prior to sinking ships, including PCB decontamination. However, the Navy must remove solid PCB items only if they are readily detachable, according to the lawsuit.

"Ships remediated to this standard may still contain many hundreds of pounds of PCBs in solid form and in concentrations of 50 parts per million or greater," the lawsuit says. "Such ships would not meet the standards otherwise applicable to the export for disposal of these vessels."

Self said when the USS Oriskany was sunk to create an artificial reef in 2006, studies by officials in Florida showed average PCB concentrations of fish caught in the vicinity exceed both the EPA and Florida Health Department maximum levels.

"That ship went through similar remediation of PCBs that ships in the SINKEX do," Self said. "Most of the SINKEX ships are being sunk in deeper waters and they have not really investigated any post-sinking impacts."

He said once PCBs enter an organism, they don´t leave and follow their way up the food chain.

A spokesperson from the EPA released a statement saying it doesn´t comment on pending litigation. Officials from the Navy did not return phone calls.

Since 1996, the Navy has averaged 9 sink exercises a year. Four were sunk in 2010, but none have been sunk in 2011. Most are sunk off the shores of Hawaii, but some have occurred off Florida and southern California, according to the Navy´s website.

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 to execute tactical missions.

The environmental groups´ petition does not ask the EPA to end the Navy´s SINKEX program, but to increase the remediation requirements.

"Legally, we are asking the EPA to require additional remediation, so at the very least we´re not polluting our sea with toxic PCBs, but in the end our overall goal is end the of SINKEX program," Self said. "Our preference would be to eliminate the sinking program all together in favor of recycling because we don´t see any value in sinking the vessel."

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

Source: Waste & Recycling. By Jeremy Carroll | WRN reporter. 9 January 2012

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