BAN, Sierra Club Sue Over Naval Ship Sinking Exercises

Ex-USS CONOLLY disposed at sea in April 2009 via SINKEX. Image Source: U.S. Navy Photo by LT Chris Brown

The U.S. Navy’s ship sinking exercise (SINKEX) program allows the Navy to fire on inactive naval warships to dispose of them at sea.

The Navy has sent 70% of our obsolete fleet (109 ships) over the past decade to the ocean’s depth rather than recycle these vessels at U.S. ship recycling facilities.

We know what you’re thinking, there must be more to the story; and that’s exactly what BAN thought at first notice.

And so BAN investigated; for three years BAN investigated every government report, memorandum of agreement and every unclassified interagency correspondence available. And we can tell you what more there is to the story.

Here it is.

Ship sinking as a means of vessel disposal is an old policy that was devised at a time before recycling was developed as a science, and when dumping trash at sea was not yet frowned upon. This was also a time when throwing garbage out a moving car was a social norm. But times change, and no longer do people accept roadside littering, nor throwing trash at sea…but for some odd reason, sinking very large Navy vessels is still common practice. In fact, the sinking program has risen from 8% of all Navy ship disposals in the three decades leading up to 2000, to 70% of all Navy ship disposals this past decade. It’s not the most environmentally responsible disposal option; it’s not the cheapest ship disposal option; it doesn’t even offer war-like training opportunities as decrepit vessels are merely idle targets. SINKEX is just a long standing policy that has gone unquestioned for years because no one has asked WHY.

Until now.

The Ex- NEW ORLEANS was sunk via SINKEX during summer 2010, along with four other vessels. These five vessels contributed an estimated 47,521 tons of recyclable material, worth an estimated $29 million, to the depths of the sea, forfeiting approximately 1,692 jobs from the economy at large while unemployment rates remained steady at 9.5%. Image Source: Australian Defense Force, RIMPAC 2010

BAN authored an economic report entitled Jobs and Dollars Overboard in December 2010, and later authored a conclusive environmental, economic and human health impact report entitled Dishonorable Disposal in July 2011. Together these reports expose an extremely wasteful program that not only squanders valuable resources that could otherwise be recycled to bring a financial return to the government, but it also exposes a program that unquestionably contributes to ocean pollution in the worst form, hazardous waste pollution. The carcinogenic toxin known as polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) exist in the hulls of these sunken naval vessels and are leaching into the marine environment. A recent study shows that these PCBs are entering the marine food chain at levels unsafe for human consumption.

While BAN’s continued work has apparently stifled the SINKEX program, with 2011 marking the only year in over 40 years that the Navy has “voluntarily” not conducted a SINKEX (1995 and 1996 were the only other years that SINKEX was not carried out, this due to EPA obstruction), 2011 is also the year in which the Navy gained approval to sink vessels in the pristine waters of the Gulf of Alaska in 2012 and beyond.

And so last week, BAN and Sierra Club, with legal support from Earthjustice, sued the U.S. EPA for allowing this unchecked SINKEX program to continue polluting the sea with toxic waste.

Ex-John Young, a Spruance Class Destroyer sunk in 2004 via SINKEX Image Source:

It is time for our government to lead the recycling movement by example, and abide by the basic tenants of President Obama’s Lead by Example executive order. New ship disposal policies must be adopted to prioritize domestic ship recycling that contains and responsibly disposes of toxic waste found in ships, recirculates critical metals resources into the domestic marketplace to reduce reliance on the dangerous and damaging primary metals mining industry, and supports domestic industry to create green U.S. jobs.

The time to act is now.


Cover Image: The crew of the GEORGE H.W. BUSH Carrier Strike Group looks on as the USNS SATURN is sunk in October 2010 as part of a SINKEX training event off the Atlantic coast. Image Source: U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Jason C. Winn