The U.S. Navy’s ‘Great Green Fleet,’ joined by twenty-two friendly nations, will fire-on and sink three inactive U.S. naval warships this summer off the coast of Hawaii during the Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) war games. The ships are contaminated with toxic heavy metals and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) based on documentation of known contaminants found in more than 100 ships previously sunk by the Navy over the past twelve years. According to environmental groups, sinking – instead of recycling – these ships will send toxic chemicals into the marine environment and needlessly deprive the U.S. ship recycling industry of both resources and jobs. The deliberate sinking of the vessels is part of a target practice ship disposal exercise known as SINKEX (sinking exercise). This year’s operation will be the first such ocean dumping of old ships since the Chief of Naval Operations (CNO) placed a moratorium on SINKEX in 2011, and the first since Sierra Club and the Basel Action Network (BAN), represented by Earthjustice, filed a formal complaint against the U.S. EPA for continuing to allow the ocean dumping of toxins on SINKEX vessels.
“The hypocrisy of the Navy’s new ecological ‘Great Green Fleet’ demonstrating its “greenness” by sinking ships containing globally banned pollutants off the coast of Hawaii is particularly ironic,” said Colby Self of BAN’s Green Ship Recycling Campaign. “But the realization that this choice by the Navy to dump poisons into the marine environment is not only unnecessary, but also is costing Americans hundreds of green recycling jobs, makes this SINKEX program both an environmental and an economic insult.”
The vessels Kilauea, Niagara Falls and Concord are slated for sinking at RIMPAC, while a fourth vessel, the Coronado is slated for sinking as part of the SINKEX at operation Valiant Shield 2012, scheduled for the Pacific later this year. The SINKEX program allows the Navy to fire on inactive naval warships to practice gunnery and torpedo accuracy. Proponents say sinking live targets is essential for fleet readiness, while many military experts suggest that firing on idle ships is not representative of live combat scenarios and there are viable training alternatives with less environmental consequence, such as using simulations or clean inflatable targets.
Proponents also cite the economic boost when 25,000 military personnel from around the world arrive in Hawaii. However this boost comes irrespective of the SINKEX exercise as it is only a minor part of the larger RIMPAC training syllabus which lasts the entire month of July.
Together, the sinking of these four vessels would needlessly waste valuable resources by sending approximately 38,000 tons of fully recyclable steel, aluminum, copper and lead to the ocean floor, valued at approximately $27.6 million in today's scrap market. Lost too with the sinking of these vessels would be hundreds of U.S. ship recycling jobs.
In April 2012, the Center for Biological Diversity joined Sierra Club and BAN’s effort to redirect the Navy toward a more positive environmental and economic approach by petitioning the EPA to rescind an exemption from environmental laws it has granted the Navy for the SINKEX program. The petition asserts that continued SINKEX operations violate U.S. and international ocean dumping regulations including the Marine Protection, Research and Sanctuaries Act; Toxic Substances Control Act; London Convention; London Protocol; Stockholm Convention; Basel Convention; and various OECD agreements.
“PCBs have been banned globally because they’re some of the most dangerous pollutants around,” said Emily Jeffers of the Center for Biological Diversity. “They leach from sunken ships into the ocean and bioaccumulate in the bodies of fish, dolphins, and whales. Our oceans should never be used as a dump for poison.”
The EPA and Navy admit that highly toxic chemicals are released into the marine environment as a result of SINKEX, including asbestos, lead paint, antifouling paint containing tributyltin (TBT), polybrominated diphenyl esters (PBDEs) and PCBs, a suspected carcinogen that has been targeted for global phase out and destruction under the Stockholm Convention. However, the EPA and Navy seem unwilling to consider the new scientific findings presented by the coalition that show the amount of PCBs and other pollutants from the scuttled ships is far greater than EPA believed when it exempted SINKEX from ocean dumping laws. Instead the EPA asked a Federal Judge to dismiss the complaint on procedural grounds – a request that was denied last week.
“The sinking of these vessels directly contradicts President Obama’s directives calling on federal agencies to lead by example in recycling and ocean stewardship. The pristine waters north of the island of Kauai have already become a graveyard for more than a dozen ships containing untold tons of pollutants. These sinkings must stop! This is not ocean stewardship, nor is it the action of a “Great Green Fleet,” said Robert Harris of the Sierra Club in Hawaii.
The sinking of the ships runs counter to President Barack Obama’s executive order, “Stewardship of the Ocean, Our Coasts and the Great Lakes,” which established a national policy to ensure the protection of the health of our ocean. It also turns on its head another executive order, “Federal Leadership in Environmental, Energy, and Economic Performance,” which included a call for all Federal agencies to prioritize recycling as policy.
The Sierra Club and Basel Action Network have filed their complaint in federal district court in San Francisco against the EPA asserting that continued SINKEX operations violate the U.S. Toxic Substances Control Act. They are represented in this action by Earthjustice, a nonprofit environmental law firm. While the EPA has permitted SINKEX and provided exemptions to various U.S. laws, the groups argue that those exemptions, granted in 1998, are based on out-dated scientific research and should be rescinded.