Environmental groups have petitioned to halt the US Navy's practice of sinking contaminated old vessels in the high seas as part of target practice exercises.
The petition alleges that the decommissioned ships used by the Navy in its "SINKEX" excercises contain a host of toxic materials including polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) that pose serious threats to the marine environment when sunk.
The legal action is timely as the Navy recently announced plans to extend the SINKEX program to the Gulf of Alaska, one of the richest fishing grounds in the world, including commercially important fisheries such as crab, cod, salmon and halibut.
Filed by the Basel Action Network and the Sierra Club, and directed to U.S. EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson, the petition concludes the SINKEX program not only violates U.S and international ocean dumping regulations, but in fact may contaminate waters to such an extent that fish found there will not be fit for human consumption.
"After more than a decade of unchecked dumping and sinking of old naval vessels, the Navy's SINKEX program has raised toxic PCB and contaminant levels in our marine environment, threatening our waters, food supply, local fishing industries and human health," says Michael Brune, Executive Director of the Sierra Club. "We hope the Navy will lead by example - as they have with their adoption of hybrid ships - by putting a halt to this arcane dumping practice."
Under the SINKEX program, the Navy fires at inactive warships to practice gunnery and torpedo accuracy while also disposing of unwanted ships at sea.
The program operates under a series of general permits and exemptions from existing environmental laws, namely the Marine Protection, Research and Sanctuaries Act (MPRSA), which regulates ocean dumping, and the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), which regulates the transport and disposal of PCBs.
The EPA and Navy admit that PCBs, a suspected carcinogen that has been targeted for global phase out and destruction under the Stockholm Convention, are deposited into the marine environment as a result of SINKEX operations.
Recent data from the scuttled aircraft carrier Oriskany reveal that PCBs leached into surrounding waters at far greater rates than anticipated, resulting in human health threats to those consuming fish from the Florida dump site, content the two environmental groups.
In the petition, Basic Action and Sierra Club request the EPA Administrator re-evaluate the SINKEX program given the current body of scientific knowledge on PCB leaching and uptake through the marine food chain.
Computer simulations are among the demonstrated, viable alternatives for naval training.
By using such alternatives, the government would lead by example and uphold President Obama's Executive Order 13514: Federal Leadership in Environmental, Energy, and Economic Performance.
Recycling the decommissioned ships instead of dumping them would recirculate critical metals into the marketplace, reduce reliance on dangerous and damaging primary metals mining and create thousands of green jobs in the U.S.
"While the EPA and Navy both acknowledge new science on PCBs, they have failed to reevaluate the unimpeded ocean dumping privileges extended to the Navy more than a decade ago," says Colby Self, BAN's Green Ship Recycling Campaign Director. "They have also failed to recognize today's ethic of recycling rather than dumping. It's time we take a more rational approach."