Ferguson fears Navy will release more pollution in cleaning another ship currently slated for scrapping
SEATTLE — Attorney General Bob Ferguson today filed a motion to join a lawsuit challenging the U.S. Navy’s practice of scraping the hulls of decommissioned vessels in a way that releases metals and other contaminants into Sinclair Inlet. This contamination can harm marine life up and down the food chain, including salmon and orcas.
The Navy currently has a decommissioned ship awaiting cleaning and scrapping. Ferguson, along with local tribes and several environmental groups, fear that the Navy will follow the same pattern it used to clean a decommission vessel in 2017 and release more toxic materials into the sound.
The lawsuit follows the Navy’s January 2017 efforts to blast marine debris off the hull of a 60,000-ton, decommissioned aircraft carrier before transport and scrapping. In doing so, the Navy released approximately 50 dump truck loads of solid materials into Puget Sound, including metals highly toxic to marine life.
“Everyone has a duty to protect our waters, including the federal government,” said Ferguson. “The Navy’s actions endanger Washington’s diverse marine life, including salmon and orcas. The Navy must take responsibility for its actions and be held accountable.”
In June 2017, Puget Soundkeeper Alliance, the Washington Environmental Council and the Suquamish Tribe filed a lawsuit against the Navy, asserting that the military branch violated the federal Clean Water Act by releasing toxic substances into the inlet without a permit.
After the results of the Navy’s own sediment sampling came to light and showed the magnitude of metals released from the hull cleaning, Ferguson sent a letter in January, advising the military branch that he would join the organizations’ lawsuit if it did not resolve the issue within 60 days. As a result of that letter, Ferguson filed a motion to intervene in the lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Washington. Ferguson and the groups ask the court to order the Navy to clean up the current contamination in Puget Sound, and to stop cleaning vessels in a way that releases toxic metals and other hazardous materials.
In addition to the allegations that the Navy violated the federal Clean Water Act, the Attorney General’s Office asserts that the Navy violated the state Water Pollution Control Act.
The Puget Sound Naval Shipyard in Bremerton provided dock space for the ex-USS Independence, a 60,000-ton aircraft carrier decommissioned in 1998. In 2016, the Navy decided to transport the vessel to a recycling facility in Texas for dismantling.
Before moving the decommissioned ship, the Navy consulted with the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) — as required by law — to ensure that the move would not pose any dangers to threatened or endangered species. NMFS recommended that the Navy clean the hull to avoid spreading potential invasive species. NMFS also provided suggestions on how to do so while minimizing discharges of potentially toxic waste into Sinclair Inlet. For example, NMFS recommended cleaning up any debris as soon as possible after cleaning. Two years later, the Navy still has not cleaned up any of the materials it released.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Washington State Department of Ecology raised concerns after the Navy announced its plan to clean the ex-Independence, which would release several pollutants into Puget Sound. The EPA recommended that the Navy clean the ship in a dry dock, out of the water, to prevent releasing materials directly into the inlet. Despite these concerns, the Navy proceeded to clean the hull of the ship in the waters of Sinclair Inlet in early 2017.
The cleaning and scraping of the hull released approximately 50 dump truck loads of solid materials into the waters and sediment of Sinclair Inlet. This included copper and zinc contained in the “anti-fouling” paint covering the hull. Both copper and zinc are highly toxic to marine life that forms the base of Puget Sound’s food chain. This, in turn, affects the health of the entire aquatic food chain, including salmon and orcas. For example, copper can harm salmon’s ability to navigate to spawning streams or to avoid predators.
Samplings taken by the Navy both before and after the cleaning found that the level of pollutants it released while cleaning the ex-U.S.S. Independence far exceed standards allowed by Washington state.
Since the Navy has not attempted to contain the release of various pollutants, such as paint chips, they continue to release copper, zinc and other toxic metals into Puget Sound.
Another decommissioned aircraft carrier, the ex-USS Kitty Hawk, currently awaits transport to the scrapping site in Texas. Ferguson, along with the groups that originally brought the case, fear the Navy will clean the vessel in the same way as the ex-Independence — in the water without containing any pollution from the cleaning — further releasing toxic materials into the water.
Assistant Attorney General Kelly Wood and Special Assistant Attorney General Aurora Janke with the Counsel for Environmental Protection are handling this case on behalf of the Attorney General’s Office.
Protecting the environment is one of Ferguson’s top priorities. In 2016, he created the Counsel for Environmental Protection to protect our environment and the safety and health of all Washingtonians.
The Office of the Attorney General is the chief legal office for the state of Washington with attorneys and staff in 27 divisions across the state providing legal services to roughly 200 state agencies, boards and commissions. Visit www.atg.wa.gov to learn more.
Brionna Aho, Communications Director, (360) 753-2727; Brionna.firstname.lastname@example.org