Environmental shipwrecks

Guest post by Abi Barnes, a Vermont Law School student and intern at chinadialogue.

Decommissioned naval ships are covering new ground: ocean floors. In the past decade, the US Navy has forged ahead on an initiative called SINKEX, which furnishes old naval vessels into artificial reefs, creating underwater tourist attractions out of scrap metal.

A report issued last week by the Basal Action Network (BAN) examines the effects of this disposal method and concludes that the submersion of decommissioned naval vessels is “an act of pollution distribution and cost externalization”. While the Navy defends the practice as an innovative approach to recycling, scientists and environmental groups look on with skepticism and concern.

SINKEX accounted for just 8% of disposed naval vessels between 1970 and 1999, but is estimated to have made up 70% of all outdated ship disposals in the past decade. In that time, the Navy and US Maritime Administration ship disposal programs have dumped over 600,000 tonnes of recyclable steel, aluminum and copper to sea. It is estimated that approximately 20,000 green jobs were lost to the US economy with the decision not to recycle the vessels above ground. With the export of decommissioned vessels currently illegal in the US, an increasing number of ships are being sent to the pelagic depths.

The Navy sees this disposal method as a way to save money while helping the environment. According to a 2008 Navy report, the creation of artificial reefs provides protection and habitat for some of the ocean’s deepwater species. However, BAN’s report suggests that the Navy is basing these assertions on studies that have demonstrated that fish are attracted to the decommissioned vessels. BAN questions whether this is a positive ecological development and if in attracting fish, ships will concentrate fish in areas that will make them more vulnerable to commercial fisheries.

Whether decommissioned ships are leaching toxins into the environment lies at the heart of the debate. The EPA acknowledges that ships disposed in the process of artificial reefing are not necessarily purged of all toxins, such as polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), asbestos, iron, and lead paint. Recent studies have suggested higher levels of PCBs existing in areas immediately surrounding sunken vessels. Before 2001, US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) guidelines for submerged vessels prohibited trace levels of PCBs in excess of 2 parts per million (ppm); this number was later increased to 50ppm.

The EPA and Navy admit that PCBs, a neurotoxin and suspected carcinogen, enter the marine environment as a result of SINKEX operations; however, sinking ships is still considered preferable to recycling. The Navy has “failed to recognize today’s ethic of recycling”, says Colby Self, BAN’s Green Ship Recycling campaign director and co-author of the report.  

The EPA allows for ship sinking with what it calls trace levels of contamination, which means “basically any amount of contamination” is allowable unless it is proven harmful after dumping, BAN executive director, Jim Puckett, told chinadialogue.  “It’s like spooning your kids poison until they get sick and then claiming that is the allowable limit—absolutely medieval”.

A petition submitted earlier this month to EPA administrator Lisa Jackson by BAN and the non-governmental organisation, the Sierra Club, requested a reevaluation of this program. The petition additionally calls on the EPA to revoke the program’s immunity from standard environmental regulations. According to the report, SINKEX operations do not comply with the requirements of the Toxic Substances Control Act and the Marine Protection Research and Sanctuaries Act. Subsequently, the program is permitted more relaxed remedial requirements for toxic substances such as PCBs, and also puts the program at odds with international laws regulating ocean dumping.

The true cost of man-made reefs may not be known for several years and trading what could be future costs to the environment and public health for immediate gains in cheap waste disposal could prove a risky gamble.

Photo courtesy of RodneyRamsey.