U.S. Government Ends the Sinking of Old Ships as Artificial Reefs

The U.S. Maritime Administration (MARAD) has adopted a new policy that effectively terminates the federal artificial reefing program that allowed the scuttling of old ships for so-called “artificial reefs” – a practice that dates back to the Liberty Ship Act of1972. Since the program’s inception, approximately 45 ships have been disposed of at sea, along with untold tons of toxic substances such as polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and heavy metals built into each vessel, as well as many millions of dollars worth of steel and non-ferrous metal resources. U.S. based environmental organization Basel Action Network (BAN), which has actively campaigned against the government-sponsored ocean dumping program, hails this news as a victory for U.S. jobs in the domestic ship recycling industry and a win for the environment. “The Obama Administration got this one right, and they should be commended for finally putting into place a more conservative policy that protects our resources, our jobs, as well as the marine environment,” said Colby Self of the Basel Action Network.

MARAD’s new policy has not been announced publicly but became effective on 29 May 2012, according to Curt Michanczyk, Director of the Office of Ship Disposal of the Maritime Administration. MARAD’s new policy excludes from artificial reefing consideration of any vessel that was built before 1985 (and likely to contain PCBs). PCBs are a persistent toxic chemical family that is described by the U.S. EPA as potentially carcinogenic to humans and builds-up in the marine food chain. They are banned from use and production under the U.S. Toxic Substances Control Act.

Currently, all 38 so called “non-retention” ships that are designated for disposal in MARAD’s National Defense Reserve Fleet (NDRF), mostly made up of ex-naval vessels, were built before 1985 and will thus all go to domestic recyclers. Of all the 125 vessels owned by MARAD in the NDRF, all of which will be designated “non-retention” at some point in the future, only one of these vessels was built after 1985. This is the only vessel that could be considered for artificial reefing when it is designated for disposal, but only if it is not viable for recycling within two years after disposal designation.

There is little doubt that the post-sinking monitoring study of the sunken Ex-Oriskany aircraft carrier in Florida played an important role in the development of MARAD’s new policy. This study, conducted by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, was not publicly available until BAN highlighted its findings in their July 2011 report entitled Dishonorable Disposal: The Case Against Dumping U.S. Naval Vessels at Sea. The study found PCB migration into the marine food chain from the sunken aircraft carrier Ex-Oriskany and for the first time called into question the practice of sinking ships containing toxic bioaccumulative substances.

The U.S. Navy’s artificial reefing policy also appears to be heading in a similar direction as MARAD’s, as evidenced by the Navy’s sudden decision last year to recycle the aircraft carrier USS Forrestal and three other carriers, rather than scuttle them. This decision came in 2011 following a shorter BAN report and submission to the Navy, entitled Jobs and Dollars Overboard: The Economic Case Against Dumping U.S. Naval Vessels at Sea, highlighting the favorable economics of recycling. The Navy later informed BAN that the decision to recycle these vessels was made on economic grounds due to the price of scrap commodities.

BAN applauds the government for rejecting the “dump first” MARAD policy in favor of recycling but is now seeking a similar stance with respect to the Navy’s SINKEX (sinking exercise) program. SINKEX sinks non-retention vessels during live-fire target practice without complete removal of toxic pollutants, including PCBs. Sinking preparation for SINKEX is much less stringent than required of artificial reef preparation, as the EPA exempted the Navy and SINKEX from environmental regulations that would otherwise require removal of regulated concentrations of PCBs. Since this exemption in 1999, the Navy has sunk 117 vessels, the most recent of which included three sinkings near Hawaii in July 2012.

Approximately $20.5 million in fully recoverable scrap steel, aluminum and copper and hundreds of recycling jobs were lost with the scuttling of these three vessels. A fourth vessel is planned for sinking in 2012 via SINKEX in the coming months. BAN has joined with the Sierra Club and the Center for Biological Diversity in a lawsuit against the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for continuing to allow the SINKEX program to sink toxic vessels at sea.