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On the Environment

Monday, October 08, 2012
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A Ship Unsunk

By Guest Author, Aaron Reuben, Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies, '12

This spring the US Department of Transportation has, with the stroke of a pen, changed longstanding federal policy.  In the past, retired Naval vessels potentially contaminated with dangerous toxins had been made available for the creation of artificial fish reefs. Now vessels built before 1985 – those potentially contaminated with polychlorinated biphenols (PBCs) -  will no longer be considered for use in artificial reefs.  This is a victory for human health and the health of our oceans.

This policy change resulted from, among other actions, research undertaken by graduate students in the Environmental Protection Clinic at the Yale Law School and Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies, who worked with the Natural Resources Defense Council to oppose efforts to sink a particularly troubling former Naval vessel, the ex-USS Kawishiwi, off the coast of California.

The USS Kawishiwi was a uniquely American vessel: named for a Minnesota river, built in a New Jersey shipyard, and commissioned in a Philadelphia Naval base, this seven million gallon oil carrier served the 7th Fleet in the Pacific for more than 30 years of the Cold War.   In 1979 it retired from active US duty.  In 1992 it entered the Suisun Bay Reserve Fleet (one of three federal storage sites for America’s mothballing “national defense reserve” ships). And in 2011 it became available for artificial reefing.  In ancient Japan, stones were rolled into the ocean to provide substrate for reefs and new homes for reef fish.  Now we sink ships.

In addition to the hydrocarbon residues of a half-century of marine diesel fuel to be found in its tanks, the ex-USS Kawishiwi likely contains heavy metals (mercury, lead, barium, and cadmium) in its guidance systems, light switches, radar displays, and hull paints. Hydrocarbons and heavy metals are, respectively, carcinogens and neurotoxins.   Polychlorinated Biphenols (PCBs) – carcinogenic, mutagenic, and teratogenic bioaccumulators (meaning they are passed upward in food chains) - will be found in the ship’s boiler rooms, radio rooms, engine rooms, and weapons rooms, as well as in its adhesive tapes, switchboards, insulators, capacitors, and transformers.  Anything made of plastic in the ship will likely contain PCBs.

If it had been sunk in California state waters this year, as planned, the former USS Kawishiwi would have been the 9th such ship intentionally sunk off California, and the 5th sunk to create a reef, in the last 30 years. Though it is unclear what effect this new reef would have had on fish communities, or the dive enthusiasts who supported its creation, it is clear that any contaminants that would have survived a ship cleaning (there would have been many) would have sloughed from the ship, leeched into the ocean, and settled comfortably in the fatty tissues of marine organisms throughout the nearby water column. Eventually these contaminants would have made their way back onshore, to accumulate in the bodies of the terrestrial mammals that first commissioned them to the sea.

Through a letter of complaint based on our research, sent to the Department of Transportation’s Maritime Administrator, the Natural Resources Defense Council officially opposed the planned sinking. Through a Freedom of Information Act request we have now learned that not only will the USS Kawishiwi no longer be considered “available for reefing” but federal policy has also officially changed - all ships owned by the Department of Transportation (there are more than 40 left in reserve) cannot be considered for reefing if they were built before 1985 (the year at which PCBs are no longer likely to be ubiquitous onboard) and will, generally, be locked into recycling plans if recycling is possible.  This is a policy change guaranteed to better protect human health and the health of our oceans. And these ships are now, incidentally, more likely to create jobs (through recycling) and save taxpayers money (reefing is expensive).

Miles to go

Though old, toxic naval vessels will no longer be available for use in artificial reefs, our government is still sinking decommissioned vessels at an alarming rate.  The Navy training program SINKEX, or “sinking exercise,” uses former vessels for target practice and ordinance tests.  Over the last fifty years dozens of potentially contaminated vessels have been sunk in US waters under the SINKEX program. Last summer the Navy sunk three off the coast of Hawaii.  This fall holds plans for another sinking.

Though these ships are often cleaned to the best EPA guidelines, full removal of dangerous toxics is impossibly difficult. The toxins that went down with a recently sunk ship, the ex-USS Oriskany, have now been found in the tissue of fish surrounding the wreck. 

Is the SINKEX program worth the risks it poses to human health?  Are there better ends for these ships (including recycling, which creates jobs and drives economic activity)?  These are the questions at the heart of an open lawsuit against the EPA, filed by Earthjustice on behalf of a coalition of environmental groups late last year, which demands that the agency better regulate potentially harmful ship sinks. 

With high uncertainty surrounding the safety of these sunken vessels, now might be time for more debate and fewer reefs. The Department of Transportation’s policy change was movement in the right direction, but we still have miles to go.





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