Scuttling Plan for USS Radford Renews Reef Dispute

Contractors are preparing to scuttle the USS Arthur W. Radford 20 miles east of Fenwick Island off the coast of Delaware. The 563-foot destroyer will be yet another addition to an artificial reef program that has drawn fire from environmentalists and others, The Washington Post reported.The goals of the sinking include creating a new ocean habitat and a tourist destination, while also discarding outdated Navy ships. However, with artificial reefs expanding up and down the nation's sea coasts, environmentalists and federal and independent scientists are questioning the presumed ecological benefits.

"They're throwing debris down there and saying it's an economic opportunity, but they're not looking into the environmental impacts," Colby Self, who co-authored a report on the Navy's sinking program, told the Post.

Only a few studies have examined the impact of artificial reefs. State and federal officials are particularly concerned about whether traces of toxic chemicals that remain on the scrubbed ships pose a hazard and whether the ships end up concentrating fish, thereby making it easier to catch them.

The question of whether artificial reefs provide ecological benefits has "been out there for 50 years or more," said Jeff Tinsman, of Delaware's Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control. "If that was any easy question, it would have been answered long ago."

Donald Schregardus, deputy assistant secretary of the Navy for the environment, told the Post that the Navy simply responded to states' requests. "We let them decide what they want and if they have an interest in these ships," Schregardus said. "We are not the experts on whether they are increasing [fish] populations or whether they are the attraction for divers and fishermen. But we want to make sure they're safe."

Jon Dodrill of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission told the Post that PCB levels in reef fish near the site of the USS Oriskany spiked a year after the aircraft carrier was sunk in 2006 but have since dropped below advisory levels.

The Radford, scheduled to be sunk in late July or early August, participated in the Persian Gulf War as well as the Navy's bombardment of Beirut in the early 1980s. The ship was decommissioned in 2003, the Post reported.