Environmentalists knock EPA's OK of plan to sink ships during exercises
By William Cole | The Honolulu Star-Advertiser | Published: June 29, 2012
HONOLULU — As the Navy touts upcoming biofuel tests in what it has dubbed the "Great Green Fleet" during Rim of the Pacific war games off Hawaii, environmentalists are decrying the planned sinking of three old Navy ships as polluting the sea.
The vessels Kilauea, Niagara Falls and Concord are scheduled to be sunk as part of target practice during RIMPAC, while the Coronado will be deep-sixed during the exercise Valiant Shield later this year, according to a coalition of environmental groups.
The groups maintain that the ships are contaminated with toxic metals and polychlorinated biphenyls, based on documentation of contaminants found in more than 100 ships previously sunk by the Navy in the past 12 years.
Several decommissioned ships are sunk every two years off Hawaii during RIMPAC with missiles, guns, bombs and torpedoes, in target practice that takes place at least 57 miles from land and in waters at least 6,000 feet deep, the Navy said.
The environmental groups Basel Action Network, Sierra Club, Earthjustice and Center for Biological Diversity jointly condemned the Navy's ship-sinking exercises, which the Navy has dubbed "SINKEX."
"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," Colby Self of the Basel Action Network's Green Ship Recycling Campaign said in a written statement. "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 Navy is demonstrating a Great Green Fleet by using a 50/50 blend of traditional petroleum-based fuel and biofuel made from waste cooking oil and algae oil to power some ships and aircraft.
The Navy said all the SINKEX vessels are prepared in accordance with a permit issued by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Each ship "is put through a rigorous cleaning process," including the removal of PCBs, transformers and large capacitors, small capacitors to the greatest extent practical, trash, floatable materials and materials containing mercury or fluorocarbons, the service said.
Petroleum fuel and oils are also cleaned from tanks, piping and reservoirs, the Navy said.
"SINKEX events enhance combat readiness by providing realistic training that cannot be duplicated in simulators," the Navy said.
The Niagara Falls and Concord are Mars-class combat supply ships, while the Kilauea is an ammunition ship.
Two years ago during RIMPAC, the retired helicopter carrier New Orleans stayed afloat for hours as it was pummeled by at least seven Harpoon anti-ship missiles. An Air Force B-52 bomber also dropped a laser-guided 500-pound bomb onto the 603-foot amphibious ship, which was finished by deck guns from a firing squad of ships from the United States, Japan, Australia, Canada and France. The big ship finally went down about 70 miles northwest of Kauai.
In December, the Basel Action Network and Sierra Club sued the EPA for what the groups said was the federal agency's "ongoing failure to adequately regulate a federal ship sinking program that pollutes the sea with toxic chemicals."
The suit claims the EPA fails to adequately regulate the ocean dumping of PCBs, mixtures of synthetic organic chemicals that are toxic and dangerous to human health and the environment and can accumulate through the marine food chain.
The Associated Press reported that under an agreement with the EPA, the Navy must document how much toxic material is removed and how much goes into the sea during the ship sinkings, but an AP review of Navy reports since 2000 found incomplete and inconsistent estimates of PCBs and other toxins.
Amanda Goodin, an Earthjustice attorney representing the environmental groups in the lawsuit, said an injunction has not been sought to stop the RIMPAC sinking exercises.
"Our lawsuit is against EPA, it's not against the Navy," Goodin said. "We would like to see the Navy not sink these three vessels, certainly, but what we're asking is for EPA to increase its regulation of the sinkings and to require higher levels of remediation."
The Military Sealift Command combat stores ship USNS Niagara Falls, left, conducts an underway replenishment with the guided-missile destroyer USS John Paul Jones in 2008. The Niagara Falls is one of three decommissioned ships scheduled to be sunk as part of target practice during the 2012 Rim of the Pacific war games.
David Mercil/U.S. Navy