New report says dumping spent vessels into sea is harmful

07/20/11 Kate Bradshaw
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Throughout the world, used subway cars, tanks, ships and even tires have been placed on the ocean floor in the hope of creating artificial reefs – with varying degrees of success and environmental impact. A new study suggests a Navy program that sinks old warships to create artificial reefs is having some unintended consequences on the environment.

The USS Oriskany, nicknamed the Mighty O, was an aircraft carrier the US Navy commissioned in 1950. The 32,000 ton ship is now on ocean floor just off Pensacola. Since the US Navy blew it up and sank it off the coast of the Panhandle in 2006, the ex-USS Oriskany has been a boon to local dive boat charters.

That’s Captain Dave Mucci, of Blue Water Adventures in Pensacola. He said he was out there just days after the enormous ship eased onto the sea floor. Since then, the Oriskany has attracted scores of sea creatures, and as a result, divers. Mucci said summer is especially busy – he takes three to five boat trips out week.

During its 25-year life, the Oirskany’s stops included Japan, Libya, Korea, and Cuba. It was decommissioned in 1976 and stored in Washington State. Before the ship sank, it was stripped of most of its hazardous materials. But a new study suggests a high level of Polychlorinated Biphenyls – or PCBs, and other toxic materials like iron, asbestos, and lead, may be leaching into the ocean and making its way up the marine food chain. Colby Self is the environmental consultant who authored the study for the Basel Action Network. He said research that’s been done in the area is revealing something shocking.

PCBs are believed to be carcinogens that have a cumulative effect on the food chain. He said research suggests the effect of PCBs in the waters surrounding the Oriskany is widespread, and won’t exactly stay in one place.

But Captain Dave Mucci said he’s also talked to some scientists who conduct research on fish in the area.

He said he doesn’t want to see any environmental damage from the sunken vessel, but he also knows the government can’t afford to remove every potentially toxic substance from the ship. Still, he said, decommissioned vessels go through a pretty thorough stripping process before they get sent to the ocean floor.

It’s also expensive. According to the EPA Web site, the sinking of the Oriskany cost some $23 million. Environmental consultant Colby Self said even with that much money put into the sinking ship, the Navy had to get a special permit in order to sink the Oriskany with all of the PCBs it couldn’t afford to clean up.

Self said that’s a lot of government money that could be put to use in a better way.

According to the report, the US Navy and US Maritime Administration have jettisoned some 600,000 tons of recyclable metals through various vessel disposal programs, which would have been worth hundreds of millions of dollars in today’s commodities marketplace. Self said recycling materials used to build ships like the Oriskany would help curb the mining of dwindling resources and create jobs.

The Navy has sunken two spent vessels off the coast of Florida – the Oriskany and another off Southwest Florida. The US Navy did not return requests for comment by airtime.

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