30 December 2012 - In action taken several months ago, which has received little publicity, was an overdue policy change by the U.S. Maritime Administration limiting the sinking of ships at sea to establish artificial reefs for the benefit of aquatic life.
The Liberty Ship Act of 1972 initiated the practice of sinking outdated ships. Since that time approximately 45 ships have been disposed of in that manner. The problem is that action also dumped untold tons of toxic substances such as polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and heavy metals built into each ship, as well as millions of dollars worth of steel and nonferrous metal resources.
The action is seen as a plus in U.S. jobs for the domestic ship recycling industry and a victory for environmentalists. Many will remember our domestic battle a few years ago to clear PCBs from area streams, during which much was accomplished.
The current action is attributed to a post-sinking monitoring study conducted by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. It was first made public in July 2011 by the U.S.-based environmental organization Basel Action Network. It pertains to ships built prior to 1985 when PCBs were banned. The Environmental Protection Agency describes them as potential carcinogenic to humans which builds up in the marine food chain.
The Florida study was of the former U.S. aircraft carrier Oriskany, sunk off the Florida coast as an artificial reef. PCB migration into the marine food chain was found from the sunken aircraft carrier.
It appears the U.S. Navy’s artificial reefing policy may also be changed. BAN is seeking an end to the Navy’s age-old sinking exercise program in which the Navy gets rid of outdated vessels through live-fire target practice. These ships are exempt from the strict rules which have been used in removing pollutants from those sunk for reefs. Since the Navy was exempt from these regulations in 1999, it has sunk 117 vessels.
However, the Navy made a sudden change of direction last year which it said was due to the more favorable price for scrap commodities. It decided to recycle the aircraft carriers USS Forrestal, Saratoga, Constellation and Independence.
Whether it was public pressure from the Basel Action Network and other environmentalists or from the fact the Navy suddenly discovered the value of scrap, it made a wise decision.
Best estimates indicate the recirculating of approximately $120 million in scrap metal will create about 2,200 domestic recycling jobs. When accounting for indirect and induced employment, the job creating numbers rise to approximately 7,000 for recycling the four carriers.
That is a very minor step toward balancing the nation’s budget and economic problems as well as improving our environment.