A new report, "Dishonorable Disposal," by the Basel Action Network (BAN), and subsequent investigation by The Washington Post, uncovers the wasteful legacy of the U.S. Navy's ship sinking programs. This first-ever comprehensive analysis of ship ocean disposal by way of target practice exercise or "artificial reefing," cites new toxicological data demonstrating contamination of seafood, and an economic analysis revealing lost recycling jobs, wasted taxpayer dollars, and squandered resources at the center of the government's ship disposal program. Recently, the Pentagon quietly pulled back on plans to sink the USS Forrestal and three other aircraft carriers earlier this year, deciding instead to recycle these vessels domestically, based on economic factors. However, the Navy is now ignoring the rationale that led them to that decision and is moving ahead with plans to sink two vessels annually for military exercises (called SINKEX) in the Gulf of Alaska, one of the richest fishing grounds in the world. Another naval vessel will soon be sunk as an "artificial reef" - the Ex-Arthur Radford, a 563 foot Navy destroyer. The Radford sinking, planned for later this month if not stopped by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), will be the largest ship dumped as an artificial reef off the eastern seaboard.
The EPA and Navy admit that toxic chemicals are deposited into the marine environment as a result of ship sinking operations, including asbestos, lead paint, antifouling paint containing tributyltin (TBT), polybrominated diphenyl esters (PBDEs) and notably polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), a suspected carcinogen that has been targeted for global phase-out and destruction under the Stockholm Convention. As yet unreleased fish sampling data gathered by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, cited in BAN's report, reveals startling toxic leaching from the scuttled aircraft carrier Ex-Oriskany, an artificial reef sunk in Florida waters in 2006. The report reveals that PCBs were leached into surrounding waters and taken up by fish at levels exceeding the Florida Department of Health fish consumption advisory levels. However, no public health warnings have been issued since the discovery of this contamination.
"The harmful effects of PCBs include cancer, reproductive problems and memory loss, with the risk greatest for children and unborn babies. PCBs may also cause similar problems in wildlife," said Dr. Alan Duckworth, research scientist at the Blue Ocean Institute at Stony Brook University in response to the report. "It is therefore disturbing that the U.S. disposes of obsolete vessels by sinking them, promoting the release of toxins like PCBs into our food chain. To prevent the contamination of our seafood it is essential that we have zero tolerance for intentional PCB dumping at sea."
BAN also found that the U.S. government's ship sinking programs have escalated in recent years. From 1970-1999 the ship sinking programs accounted for approximately eight percent of all vessel disposals, but from 2000-2008, sinkings accounted for an alarming 70 percent of all disposals. Roughly 100 vessels containing an estimated 600,000 tons of recyclable steel, copper and aluminum, worth an estimated half a billion dollars have been dumped at sea over the past decade alone.
In a time of tight budgets and careful use of taxpayer money, the report reveals that the U.S. government spent a total of $25 million on the dumping of just four ships as artificial reefs in the past eight years. Total reefing costs amounted to $554 per ton. In contrast, the cost of recycling retired vessels for metals recovery in these same years was an average $67 per ton.
While the SINKEX program allows the Navy to fire on inactive naval warships to practice gunnery and torpedo accuracy, there are more reasonable methods now demonstrated as viable and available, such as computer simulations, or use of clean barges and inflatable targets. Further, contrary to popular belief, the sinking of waste material at sea as artificial reefs may actually be detrimental to species populations, as it concentrates fish and allows for overfishing.
According to BAN, domestic ship recycling is the only acceptable disposal method, as it properly contains and disposes of toxic waste, recirculates critical metals resources into the domestic marketplace to reduce reliance on the dangerous and damaging primary metals mining industry while creating green U.S. jobs. BAN's report calls for an end to government sponsored ocean dumping programs and calls for a national policy that always favors domestic recycling.