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Navy will resume sinking of old war ships; 3 are on target list

July 02, 2012|By Michael Muskal
  • The U.S. Navy is resuming its practice of using old warships for target practice, sinking them in U.S. coastal waters after a nearly two-year moratorium spurred by environmental and cost concerns.
The U.S. Navy is resuming its practice of using old warships for target practice,… (Brad Doherty / Associated…)

The U.S. Navy is resuming its program of targeting old war vessels and sinking them into deep ocean waters during military exercises, a practice that it suspended because of environmental complaints.

Three ships will soon be targeted by a variety of weapons and sunk off the coast of Hawaii as part of the Rim of the Pacific naval exercises, or RIMPAC, which began on Monday, a Navy spokesman said in a telephone interview with the Los Angeles Times. RIMPAC, which lasts for five weeks, features training exercises for thousands of military personnel from almost two dozen nations.

The sinkings, which are to take place some time in the next few weeks, would be the first since the Navy suspended the practice of using old ships as targets that are sunk in the ocean. The program, known as Sinkex, was put on hold because of environmental complaints; it was resumed after new guidelines were worked out in 2011, the spokesman said.

Environmental groups, including the Basel Action Network, are suing the federal Environmental Protection Agency, which granted a waiver to the Navy for the Sinkex program. The groups argue that the Navy should have to clean up the vessels to higher standards than the military wants, said Todd True, an attorney with Earthjustice, the public interest law firm that represents the groups.

The Navy has said that it prefers to use the out-of-date vessels as targets for its live-ammunition exercises because it gives the shooters, whether from ships or the air, a better training experience. The Navy also insists that it cleans the ships the best it can of possible pollutants, which include PCBs -- polychlorinated biphenyls associated with cancer. The environmental groups contend that even with the military cleanup, poisons inevitably get into the water and possibly into the food chain.

“The Navy shouldn’t be treated differently,” True said by telephone. “They just keep putting toxics in the deep ocean and forget about them. But once they’re in the ocean, you can’t forget about them because they work their way into the ecosystem.”

The environmental suit is pending in federal court in San Francisco. The groups will not seek an injunction to stop the training exercise.

“We are appealing to the Navy to continue their moratorium at least until our case is heard,” said Colby Self of Basel Action Network, which joined the Sierra Club in suing the EPA. “After the vessels hit the sea-bottom, it will be a little too late to redress damages to our precious marine resources.”

The inactive ships are the Niagara Falls and Concord, Mars-class combat supply ships, and the Kilauea, an ammunition ship.

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