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US Navy's 'Sinkex' Program Pollutes Ocean, Harms Fisheries

Common Dreams staff

A US Navy program that takes decommissioned battleships and sinks them by using them in live-fire excercises far out to sea has come under fire from environmentalists for the pollutants it introduces to the sea, according to report by the Associated Press. The program — called "Sinkex" for sinking exercise— also has the ship recycling industry upset, as they complain about the jobs and revenues it takes away.

AP reports:

The Navy has performed these operations for decades, disposing of decommissioned ships with little public record of the toxins left onboard. Then in 1999, the Environmental Protection Agency ordered the Navy to better document toxic waste on the doomed ships, and in return the EPA exempted the military from federal pollution laws that prohibited such dumping in the ocean.

Now, new evidence from a Florida ship sinking site suggests these old warships can cause spikes in PCB levels in nearby fish. It spurred Florida officials to bar further dumping along their coast. And it has evoked a federal lawsuit alleging the EPA has failed to properly safeguard federal waters.

The Associated Press reviewed Navy records for the past dozen years has found that ships blasted with munitions, sink to the bottom with an enormous amount of toxic chemicals still on board. The highlight one vessel that was sunk in 2005, the USS America aircraft carrier.

Navy documents state that among the toxic substances left onboard the America were more than 500 pounds of PCBs or polychlorinated biphenyls, a chemical banned by the U.S. in 1979, in part because it is long-lasting and accumulates throughout the food chain. Disposing of the carrier that served in the Vietnam War, Desert Storm and Desert Shield cost more than $22 million.

In the past 12 years, records show the Navy has used missiles, torpedoes and large guns to sink 109 old, peeling and rusty U.S warships off the coasts of California, Hawaii, Florida and other states. During the same period, 64 ships were recycled at one of six approved domestic ship-breaking facilities.

Environmental groups and marine conservationists are not pleased.

"The Navy's PCB volume estimates and self-reporting methods are questionable," said Colby Self of the environmental group Basel Action Network, which along with the Sierra Club sued the EPA. "Yet the EPA continues to disregard the Navy's self-reporting shortfalls and defend legal exemptions that allow the Navy to dump toxic waste ships at sea." [...]


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Sending PCBs and other chemicals to the ocean floor instead of recycling the ships runs counter to federal marine conservation efforts, said Peter deFur, a professor of environmental studies at Virginia Commonwealth University who sits on the Mid-Atlantic Fisheries Management Council, which oversees fisheries from New York to North Carolina.

"This excess in PCBs runs counter to all of our management objectives," deFur said. "There's the possible threat to public health from the PCBs that get into fish that people eat. And marine mammals are also at risk from elevated PCB levels in fish."

PCB's found in fish near an aircraft carrier sunk in 2006 as an artificial reef near Pensacola, Florida have raised concerns about the impacts, although the ship was located much closer to shore and in much shallower waters than Sinkex vessels.

Annual monitoring by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission of waters around the USS Oriskany concluded that fish around the carrier exceeded state and federal PCB standards in the first two years. Florida's PCB limits are 50 parts per billion for safe human consumption— EPA standards are 20 ppb. Fish later collected saw a drop in those levels overall, but some still exceeded the EPA and Florida standards.


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