Sinking Toxic Ships

The EPA Is Sued for Failing to Regulate Ocean Dumping of PCBs
The world’s coral reefs are on the brink of extinction due to a battery of environmental stressors like overfishing, habitat destruction and now climate change. With an entire ecosystem at risk, the Navy’s ship-sinking program, which recycles decommissioned military ships into artificial reefs, would seem to be the perfect solution for steering the course away from this environmental disaster.

Unfortunately, the ships harbor a toxic legacy of PCBs, a group of highly dangerous chemicals that threaten humans and wildlife. Once sunk, these chemicals leach from vessels and into the marine food chain where they’re taken up by fish at unsafe levels.

Normally, it would be illegal to dump these toxic wastes into any U.S. landfill other than one specially designed for hazardous waste, but the Navy gets away with its so-called SINKEX program (sinking exercise program) thanks to an U.S. Environmental Protection Agency exemption. Recently, environmental groups sued the agency for failing to regulate the ocean dumping of PCBs, a requirement under a whole host of domestic and international environmental laws like the Toxic Substances Control Act and the Marine Protection, Research and Sanctuaries Act.

The Navy’s maiden voyage on this ship-dumping venture began in 2006 with the USS Oriskany, an aircraft carrier that was a symbol of American military might in the 1950s and 1960s. In 2006, the so-called Mighty-O was towed 23 miles off the coast of Pensacola, Florida, exploded and sunk, becoming the largest artificial reef in U.S. waters to date.

The vessel is just one of at least 350 obsolete and decaying ships called the “ghost fleet,” which the Navy spends about $45 to $60 million on each year just to keep afloat. According to the New York Times, the Navy spent $20 million to clean the Oriskany, but left an estimated 700 pounds of PCBs, on the ship, mainly in wiring and bulkhead installation. In addition to PCBs and asbestos, these ghost ships house thousands of tons of recyclable steel, aluminum and copper. These materials, valued at about $600 million in today’s commodity marketplace, now sit at the bottom of the ocean floor along with the possibility of the thousands of domestic green jobs created from recycling these materials.

Even the artificial reef program’s often heralded benefit of providing a habitat for marine species is suspect since concentrating fish at a well-known site like a sunken ship can exacerbate the problem of overfishing by making the fish more easily and rapidly harvested.

The Basel Action Network, one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, shines a light on these issues and others in its new report, “Dishonorable Disposal.” Read and decide for yourself whether it’s time to sink the Navy’s ship-reefing program for good.