Sinking a Navy Ship Off O.C.: A Toxic Idea?

The proposed sinking of an old Navy ship off Dana Point to create an attraction for divers could come with toxic side effects, including PCBs, an environmental group opposed to ship scuttling contends. But the group proposing the idea, backed by the Dana Point City Council, says all toxic material would be stripped from the craft, the USNS Kawishiwi, before it is placed underwater.

"There's no way we would ever put a ship down with anything like PCBs, or any kind of pollutants in it," said Ron Springer, part of a non-profit group called California Ships to Reefs. "We will follow the EPA guidelines to the letter."

The proposal by the Orange County representatives of the group, based in Wheatland, erupted into a minor controversy after a Washington Post story Sunday.

The story says PCB contamination in fish caught near the U.S.S. Oriskany, sunk off the Florida coast in 2006, spiked a year later, though levels have declined since.

PCBs, or polychlorinated biphenyls, are a class of organic compounds that had a variety of uses, including as coolant in transformers, before they were banned in the United States in because of neurotoxic effects.

"From what we are seeing, there are very little post-sinking studies," said Colby Self of the Basel Action Network, which opposes sinking ships for use as reefs. "We are concerned about continuing the program when we see vessels with toxics in it, without really knowing the impacts."

Members of the Ships to Reefs group said they would not seek the EPA waiver necessary to send a ship to the bottom with any contaminants still on it.

"We will clean her extensively," he said. "We will take any of the fuels out, and have them washed out. We will pull all of the contaminated wire off the ship prior to ever putting her down."

The Kawishiwa is now moored at the Suisan Bay Reserve Fleet near San Francisco.

Any attempt to sink the ship near Dana Point is at least three to five years away, Springer said.

State Fish and Game officials received confirmation July 5 from the Maritime Administration, part of the U.S. Department of Transportation, that the Kawishiwa is available to be "considered for reefing."

But while the Dana Point City Council signaled its approval of the idea in 2008, more approvals are needed before it can be sunk; the sinking also would cost between $2.3 million and $5 million, said Ships to Reefs chief administrative officer Eleanore Rewerts.

"It's not an inexpensive process," said Kim Riddle, spokeswoman for the Maritime Administration.