The Navy has obtained authority to blast and sink as many as two real ships a year in the Gulf of Alaska over the next five years to give pilots and gunners authentic targets for their sights.
But ocean campaigners say that even decommissioned, stripped-out ships, like the ones the Navy will use as targets, contain residual hazardous materials that can poison the Gulf's rich habitat for years. They're trying to stop the target practice before it begins.
In May, the Navy finished an environmental review of new training options and authorized itself a maximum of two ship sinkings a year in the Gulf.
A Navy spokesman said there is currently no schedule to start the Alaska sinkings. But opponents of the practice want to ensure it doesn't happen.
The Sierra Club and Basel Action Network, a Seattle-based environmental group, petitioned the Environmental Protection Agency this month to stop the Navy's nationwide SINKEX program.
They maintain it will have toxic side effects, including release of PCBs into the environment.
"The Navy's plan to extend SINKEX operations to the Gulf of Alaska, one of the richest fishing grounds in the world, while also acknowledging their intention to sink vessels without first removing all toxins, is a threat to marine life in the Gulf of Alaska," said Colby Self of the Basel Action Network, who co-authored a recent report on the program.
The group identified carcinogenic polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, as a particular concern but also complains of asbestos and other hazardous pollutants.
The environmental groups want the Navy to recycle the ships, with their tons of reusable steel, copper and other metals. But the Navy sees an opportunity for training, a chance to fire live weapons in an ocean environment at a real ship. The Navy operates the program under an EPA permit that requires the vessels to be stripped as completely as possible, including emptying all fuel lines, draining hydraulic equipment and, if possible, removing "non-liquid PCBs" including plastic, gaskets, flaked-off paint and electric cable insulation.
"Solid PCBs would be removed to the maximum extent practicable, but some vessel materials with PCBs would remain on board when the vessel is sunk," according to the Navy's environmental impact statement for the program.
The impact statement concluded that the level of remaining contaminants would not hurt ocean resources.
A Washington Post story this month explored concerns over the program to sink old Navy ships, focusing on vessels sunk to create artificial reefs for ocean habitat and tourism. The story quoted a Florida state fisheries official saying that a spike in fish-tissue PCB contamination occurred a year after the USS Oriskany, a naval aircraft carrier, was sunk to create an artificial reef in 2006.
The newspaper reported that contamination levels have since dropped below advisory levels, although the most recent round of tests found elevated PCB levels in two red porgy and two scamp grouper that were sampled. The environmental administrator for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission's division of marine fisheries management said the levels will be monitored, adding that the peak levels of contamination would be a problem only for people relying on these fish for their main source of food.
The proposed Alaska sinkings wouldn't be to create artificial reefs, which the Navy says is done in significantly shallower water and much closer to shore. The Navy's environmental impact statement describes the Alaska exercises as a training opportunity for the fleet.
"A SINKEX is typically conducted by aircraft, surface ships, and submarines in order to take advantage of a full size ship target and an opportunity to fire live weapons," the report says.
The Alaska sinkings would occur at least 50 nautical miles out to sea and in water that's deeper than 6,000 feet. The Navy listed a large area lying roughly southeast of the Kenai Peninsula as a potential location for sinking exercises. The Navy says the sinkings would avoid designated "habitat areas of particular concern."
The Navy looked at multiple training options as part of the environmental impact statement but ended up picking the one that included the maximum two annual summertime sinking exercises as being the best for assuring fleet readiness.
"Currently the Navy has no SINKEX events scheduled, period. Everybody can speculate but there's nothing scheduled," said Mark Matsunaga, a U.S. Pacific Fleet spokesman in Hawaii.
Matsunaga said that the vessels are cleaned "very rigorously" before any sinking exercises happen.
The Navy took public comments on the environmental impact statement. But the proposed sinkings didn't get nearly as much attention from Alaskans as the Navy's plans to train with mid-frequency active sonar in the Gulf of Alaska.
The Alaska Marine Conservation Council and others were alarmed at the detrimental effects that the sonar can have on marine mammals, particularly whales. The Navy said it works to avoid any interaction with marine mammals and has protective measures to minimize the impacts.
Self, of the Basel Action Network, maintains that people should also be concerned about the sinkings.
"We can expect PCB leaching and uptake in the Gulf of Alaska if the Navy moves ahead with its plan to sink two vessels annually," he said.
An EPA spokeswoman said this week that the agency had just received the petition to shut down the program.
"We are currently evaluating this request," the spokeswoman said.
Does the EPA have concerns about the Navy sinking decommissioned ships in the Gulf of Alaska?
"EPA has been working with Navy and others regarding the use of the SINKEX permit as part of Navy exercises in the Gulf of Alaska and plans to continue discussions to ensure that these activities are conducted in an environmentally protective manner," the agency replied.
A spokeswoman in Juneau for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said her agency has worked closely with the Navy on monitoring and mitigation to protect marine mammals.
Reach Sean Cockerham at firstname.lastname@example.org or 257-4344.