No more ghost fleet ships for reefs?
Daily Press (Newport News, Va.)
NEWPORT NEWS, Va. — The USS General Hoyt S. Vandenberg had a storied career for decades: World War II troop transport, missile tracking vessel in the Atlantic, even a bit part as a Russian ship in a Hollywood movie.
Decommissioned in 1983, the 524-foot Vandenberg was moored for 24 years in the James River near Fort Eustis, one of scores of obsolete military vessels on reserve in the nation's so-called "ghost fleet."
She was resurrected one last time in 2007 for a trip to Florida, where after years of federal red tape and months of costly cleanup she was sunk in about 140 feet of water to become an artificial reef in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary.
Whether it's a happy ending for an aging warship is up for debate, as is the federal program behind the reefing project, which could arguably be as mothballed as the Vandenberg ever was.
Supporters say the new reef is a success, teeming with marine life.
"It's been a great boon to the community," said Sheri Lohr of Artificial Reefs of the Keys, based in Key West. Lohr said the reef has brought in even more than the $8 million a year they expected from diving and other tourism-related activities.
But opponents fret that toxic substances might be seeping into the water from the hulk, despite the cleanup.
"From my understanding, there's not any post-sinking monitoring being conducted at present … looking at toxicity and leaching taken up by the marine food chain," said Colby Self of the Basel Action Network (BAN), based in Seattle. "What they do look at is the fish counts."
Meanwhile, the U.S. Maritime Administration (MARAD), which has authority over the country's three ghost fleets, claims its artificial reef program is still open for business, despite changing two key policies earlier this year that could essentially scrap the program.
The agency will no longer consider vessels for reefing that were built before 1985, nor will it include vessels that are within 24 months of a "more expeditious disposal method such as recycling," Kevin M. Tokarski, associate administrator for national security with MARAD, wrote in an internal memo to Maritime Administrator David T. Matsuda dated April 13, 2012.
Previously, Tokarski noted, the agency only restricted vessels considered "an imminent environmental threat" or "public safety concern" or those within 12 months of disposal.
In an emailed statement Wednesday, MARAD spokeswoman Kim Riddle emphasized that the reefing program is still viable.
"While the timeframe governing the availability of vessels for artificial reefing has been extended and ships built prior to 1985 are restricted," Riddle wrote, "MARAD has not ended its vessel reefing program. In recent years, given the time and expense involved, fewer vessels have been disposed of through artificial reefing as compared to recycling at a U.S.-qualified facility."
In his memo, Tokarski also expressed concerns over polychlorinated biphenals (PCBs) used in ship construction or repair.
PCBs are a carcinogen, and their manufacture banned in this country in 1979.
MARAD is using 1985 as a conservative threshold year in case PCB products or components "remained in the supply streams for use in vessel construction or repairs," Tokarski wrote.
Since 2001, only four of 170 obsolete vessels sent for disposal were used as artificial reefs, including two from Hampton Roads.
The reserve fleet on the James River was created in 1919, and in its WWII heyday had more than 800 ships. The number declined to about 100 by the 1990s.
The aging vessels have plagued local and state officials for years as environmental hazards from the oil they retained as well as the PCBs, asbestos, lead and mercury built into them.
Several Hampton Roads municipalities passed resolutions of concern over the past few years, and former Gov. Mark Warner once called them a "ticking time-bomb" and threatened to sue the federal government if it didn't remove them.
Since 2001, the government has been selling off most of the vessels for scrap. Today, MARAD figures show the local ghost fleet has five retention vessels and 12 nonretention or obsolete ships, most of them retired military. Nationwide, there are about 40, including the fleets in Texas and California.
In 2004, the USS Oriskany aircraft carrier was removed from the reserve fleet in Texas, remediated and in 2006 sunk off the Pensacola coast in a pilot project for artificial reefs. It's still the largest such reef in the country, said Self.
Site monitoring since then by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservaton Commission indicates a leap in PCB contamination in fish around the reef, he said. The results appear in a BAN report from July 2011 called "Dishonorable Disposal: The Case Against Dumping U.S. Naval Vessels at Sea."
Before the sinking, Self said, PCB concentrations in fish were 3.8 parts per billion (ppb). Afterward, they rocketed to 58.75 ppb.
In that time, total PCB concentrations in fish samples increased an average of 1,446 percent, he said.
Fans of artificial reefs fought for years to bring the Vandenberg from Hampton Roads to the Keys. Lohr, who had a diving business at the time, said they chose the Vandenberg because it was a "relatively clean" ship in terms of environmental hazards.
What they thought would take three years and cost $3 million ended up taking 13 years and $13 million, said Lohrmost of that to make the clean ship even cleaner.
The piping in the engine room was wrapped in asbestos and had to be removed in case the scuttling process jarred it loose, she said. Hundreds of miles of wiring could have had PCBs in the insulation, so it had to be cut in sections by hand and walked off the ship.
Every time they thought they were close to passing environmental standards, she said, they were wrong.
"It was a regulatory nightmare," Lohr said. "Nobody really wanted to take responsibility, so they kept changing the rules and passing the buck. Every time they changed the rules, that meant we had to come up with another million."
Tokarski's memo cites the "onerous, multi-year process" and "lengthy approval, sampling, testing and remediation process" required to render such vessels safe for reefing.
Despite the headaches, Lohr said, the reef was worth it.
"Now that she's down, it's a huge boon to the local economy," she said. "It is teeming with life. …It's covered with coral. We started seeing sea urchins we haven't seen on the reef since '80."
One of the conditions of reefing was regular environmental testing, conducted by a for-profit company called Reefmakers, she said.
No one from Reefmakers returned a phone call for comment. The company website describes their work building artificial reefs in coastal communities and conducting environmental monitoring afterward.
Tokarski noted in his memo that the low number of reserve fleet vessels reefed since 2001 indicate it's "not considered a critical disposal alternative."
"Each of those transfers, from the first indication of interest through the vessels' preparation and eventual sinking, took several years and an inordinate amount of staff resources to complete," Tokarski wrote.
He also noted MARAD was able to sell off the last 15 vessels offered for recycling over the previous eight months, crediting a strong scrap steel market and competition among qualified domestic recyclers. That pace is expected to remain steady into 2013, he wrote, enabling the agency to remove about 18 obsolete ships per year for disposal.
Along with the Vandenberg, a former Navy submarine rescue ship built in 1945 called the Kittiwake was selected from the James River ghost fleet for an artifical reef in the Cayman Islands in 2010. It's being used as a snorkeling and dive site.
According to Tokarski, only the State of California and Barbados had shown any interest in specific vessels that would be excluded from consideration under the new policy. And that environmental groups have actively opposed California's request.
Administrator Matsuda signed to acknowledge the Tokarski memo on May 29. In the comment section, he scribbled: "Anybody besides Barbados + CA going to care?"