04 October 2012

Update: Maritime Administration dumps ship-sinking practice

In what environmentalists call "a major win," the U.S. Maritime Administration has reversed course and will look to recycle old vessels before making artificial reefs out of them.

The new policy is to not sink ships built before 1985, when ships were often built using toxic substances, in the ocean.

The U.S. Maritime Administration is a division of the Department of Transportation and has its own fleet of noncombatant governmental ships. The policy would not apply to other governmental departments, such as the U.S. Navy and Coast Guard, unless the Maritime Administration owned one of their former vessels.

Ships are often used by the government to create artificial reefs in oceans.

The Basel Action Network said since 1972, approximately 45 ships have been disposed at sea by the U.S. Maritime Administration. Those vessels often carried PCBs and other potentially toxic substances. In addition, the scrap metal is likely worth millions of dollars. There are 38 ships in the Maritime Administration's fleet designated for disposal. Of the 125 vessels owned by the agency, only one was built after 1985.

"They are basically saying ship recycling in the U.S. will be their predominate means of disposal," said Colby Self, director of BAN's green ship recycling program. "Just five or six years ago, they said ship recycling was too expensive in the U.S. They were looking for alternatives [to recycling] and artificial reefing was one of them. They are coming back to their senses and choosing recycling over ocean dumping."

Officials with the U.S. Maritime Administration did not return repeated calls for comment on the policy change.

The change might have more to do with economics than wanting to do right by the environment, Self said.

"I think the last five or so vessels the Navy has recycled, they did it at a cost of [a total of] 2 cents to the government," he said. "In past years, that definitely wasn't the case. They are seeing there is an economic benefit to recycling as opposed to sinking, which costs millions of dollars."

Self said it's important that a business case can be made for recycling, as that can only lead to good things.

"I think the economics is a stronger influence than the environment [in this case],"

he said. "But hey, when positive for the economy and positive for the environment work together, as long as the outcome is good, we're in full support."

BAN has been pressuring the U.S. Navy to adopt a similar policy, calling for an end to its sinking exercises. The Navy has sunk 117 ships since 1999, including three near Hawaii in July. BAN has sued the U.S. EPA for allowing the program to continue. That case remains in federal court.

The Navy does artificial reefing and also sinks ships as part of target practice to simulate war situations. The artificial reefing program has slowed in recent years after twice the amount of PCBs expected from the U.S.S. Oriskany aircraft carrier was found around the artificial reef created off of Florida's coast.

"We've been hard on this administration for continuing these dumping policies," Self said. "We're really pleased to a see positive change … it's definitely a step in the right direction and we commend them for that."

Source: By Jeremy Carroll. 1 October 2012

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