Concerns about sinking old PCB-contaminated warships to build artificial reefs led to two federal policy changes this year that essentially scuttled the program.
A pair of mothballed vessels from the dwindling James River ghost fleet were reefed this way in the last few years before the U.S. Maritime Administration, or MARAD, announced it would no longer consider using vessels built before 1985 or those within 24 months of "more expeditious" disposal.
But environmentalists are in court to stop the U.S. Navy from using aging warships as targets during sinking exercises, or SINKEX, over similar concerns about cancer-causing polychlorinated biphenyls leaching into the sea.
"It is odd, moving to this new MARAD policy where they say, 'We're not going to risk any ships that could potentially have PCBs," said Colby Self of the Seattle-based Basel Action Network (BAN). "And on the other hand sinking Navy ships as target practice."
MARAD has authority over the Navy's three reserve fleets in Hampton Roads, Texas and California. It has no authority over SINKEX.
BAN and Sierra Club are suing the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to try to force stricter environmental standards for SINKEX ships. The suit was filed last year in U.S. District Court in San Francisco.
According to the Navy, sinking exercises enhance fleet readiness by "providing environmentally clean target ships for at-sea live-fire exercises."
"Fleet sink exercises are conducted in compliance with the Marine Protection, Research and Sanctuaries Act (MPRSA)," according to a document provided by Lt. Commander Paul Macapagal, a Navy spokesman at the Pentagon. "Each ship provided is put through a rigorous cleaning process … which includes the removal of all PCB transformers and large capacitors, all small capacitors to the greatest extent practical, trash, floatable materials, mercury or fluorocarbon containing materials, and readily detachable solid PCB items."
Since 1999, 118 ships have been sunk as part of SINKEX, said Chris Johnson, spokesman at Naval Sea Systems Command in Washington.
In 2005, the 40-year-old aircraft carrier USS Americabuilt in Newport News was sunk in a SINKEX exercise about 300 nautical miles southeast of Hampton Roads.
This year, four ships were sunkthree off Hawaii in July, and one off Guam last month. No more are planned for 2012, Johnson said.
The Navy has long said it prepares all vessels used in SINKEX in strict compliance with EPA regulations.
The problem with that, environmentalist argue, is that in 1999 the Navy was granted a general permit from the EPA exempting it from the strictest federal standards governing ocean dumping under MPRSA.
"They are 'cleaned," said Self, "but when you look at the requirements of the cleaning, it's not sufficient. They're not removing anything that's not 'readily detachable.' No scraping, no use of machinery, no removal of machinery. They are not going to open up bulkheads to get at asbestos."
SINKEX ships remediated under current standards "may still contain many hundreds of pounds of PCBs," the lawsuit notes.
The carcinogenic nature of PCBs has been known for decades. In 1976, Congress passed the Toxic Substances Control Act, which required rapidly phasing out the manufacture, processing and use of PCBs, with limited exceptions.
The EPA has strict rules for the domestic disposal of PCBs, including requiring an EPA-approved incinerator, chemical waste landfill or other such methods. The agency also banned most import and export of PCBs, and enacted extensive rules governing decontamination.
Warships whose keels were laid before 1985 often contain "substantial volumes of PCBs," the lawsuit notes.
This is why an old military vessel slated to become an artificial reef must first undergo a stripping and cleaning process that can extend for years and cost a fortune. It took 13 years of red tape, millions of dollars and stem-to-stern stripping, for instance, before the USS General Hoyt S. Vandenberg, once part of the James River Reserve Fleet, could be sunk off Key West, Fla., in 2007, reef supporters said.
In fact, MARAD torpedoed its artificial reefing program in part because of the "lengthy approval, sampling, testing and remediation process" required to render old ships safe for reefing, according to an internal agency memo earlier this year.
Even then, such ships might not be safe enough.
The decommissioned aircraft carrier USS Oriskany was remediated and reefed off Pensacola in 2006. But site monitoring by the EPA and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission found total PCB concentrations in fish samples around the reef jumped by more than 1,000 percent, said Self.
According to the Navy, SINKEX ships are sunk in far deeper, more remote waters than coastal artificial reefs. Each hull must be sunk in at least 6,000 feet of water at least 50 nautical miles from land. The Navy conducts surveys of the area beforehand to ensure no humans or marine mammals are harmed.
Environmentalist are not assuaged.
"There are no unimportant ecosystems," said Amanda Goodwin of San Francisco-based Earthjustice and lead attorney in the lawsuit. "Just because it's an ecosystem that's at a greater depth doesn't mean we should contaminate