by Dahr Jamail
The US Navy has been conducting war-game exercises in US waters for decades, and in the process, it has left behind tons of bombs, heavy metals, missiles, sonar buoys, high explosives and depleted uranium munitions that are extremely harmful to both humans and marine life.
Truthout recently reported that the Navy has admitted to releasing chemicals into the oceans that are known to injure infants’ brains, as well as having left large amounts of depleted uranium in US coastal waters. Now, the Navy’s own documents reveal that it also plans to use 20,000 tons of heavy metals, plastics and other highly toxic compounds over the next two decades in the oceans where it conducts its war games.
According to the Navy’s 2015 Northwest Training and Testing environmental impact statement (EIS), in the thousands of warfare “testing and training events” it conducts each year, 200,000 “stressors” from the use of missiles, torpedoes, guns and other explosive firings in US waters happen biennially. These “stressors,” along with drones, vessels, aircraft, shells, batteries, electronic components and anti-corrosion compounds that coat external metal surfaces are the vehicles by which the Navy will be introducing heavy metals and highly toxic compounds into the environment.
Just some of the dangerous compounds the Navy will be injecting into the environment during their exercises are: ammonium perchlorate, picric acid, nitrobenzene, lithium from sonobuoy batteries, lead, manganese, phosphorus, sulfur, copper, nickel, tungsten, chromium, molybdenum, vanadium, trinitrotoluene (TNT), RDX [Royal Demolition eXplosive] and HMX [High Melting eXplosive], among many others.
“None of these belong in the ocean’s food web, upon which we all depend,” Karen Sullivan, a retired endangered species biologist who cofounded West Coast Action Alliance, which acts as a watchdog of Naval activities in the Pacific Northwest, told Truthout. “Nor will the Navy be willing to clean it up, or even contribute to medical tests for people whose health may suffer.”
A worrying example of that fact: In August of this year, a lawmaker in Pennsylvania urged 70,000 residents across three counties whose drinking water was contaminated by the Navy to sue them, just to get funding to pay for blood tests to see how sick they had become.
Other examples of US citizens being treated as collateral damage abound. Just this October, the BBC reported on an Air Force Base leaking toxic chemicals into the sewer system, and the port of San Diego filed a federal lawsuit against the Navy for injecting an underground plume of toxic chemicals that threatens to contaminate the entire bay.
But stories like these are only the tip of an impending iceberg.
Experts Truthout spoke with warn that if the Navy gets its way, the next 20 years will see them causing far more environmental degradation and destruction up and down US coastal areas by way of widespread chemical and toxic contamination.
The Navy is, like all the other branches of the US military, ridiculously well-funded. Recent history shows that US military spending dwarfs the rest of the planet’s military spending.
“For the last half-century, US military spending has purchased the annihilation of millions throughout Southeast Asia, the Arab world, and Central Asia,” Mozhgan Savabieasfahani, an environmental toxicologist and winner of the 2015 Rachel Carson prize for her work on depleted uranium (DU) and heavy metal contamination, told Truthout. “Accompanying that human annihilation has been environmental devastation and birth defects, from Vietnam to Iraq.”
Her strong words are backed by clear, cold facts that come from even mainstream media sources in the US, like Newsweek magazine, which in a 2014 article titled “The US Department of Defense Is One of the World’s Biggest Polluters” stated:
The US Department of Defence [sic] is one of the world’s worst polluters. Its footprint dwarfs that of any corporation: 4,127 installations spread across 19 million acres of American soil. Maureen Sullivan, who heads the Pentagon’s environmental programs, says her office contends with 39,000 contaminated sites.
Even as far back as 1990, the US Department of Defense had already admitted to creating more than 14,000 suspected contamination sites across the planet.
The US Safe Drinking Water Act defines “contaminant” as: ” … any physical, chemical, biological or radiological substance or matter in water. Drinking water may reasonably be expected to contain at least small amounts of some contaminants. Some contaminants may be harmful if consumed at certain levels in drinking water. The presence of contaminants does not necessarily indicate that the water poses a health risk.”
Thus, contamination being a matter of scale, the government creates a “not-to-exceed” level based on what it knows about each contaminant, in order to minimize human exposure to each item on its massive list of contaminants.
However, the contamination guidelines don’t account for the kind of pollution perpetrated by the US Navy.
“What do you do when it’s massive quantities of contaminants in the ocean, and not your drinking water?” asked Sullivan, who worked at the US Fish and Wildlife Service for more than 15 years and is an expert in the bureaucratic procedures the Navy is supposed to be following.
She pointed out how “contamination,” or water pollution, is defined as “environmental degradation that occurs when pollutants are directly or indirectly discharged into water bodies without adequate treatment to remove harmful compounds.”
On that point she said, “None of the dangerous compounds being dumped into our waters by the Navy have ever been treated or removed, which leads to hearing this false choice: The cost of cleanup or removal would be exorbitant. Therefore, we should continue dumping as always, in perpetuity.”
Navy spokesperson Sheila Murray told Truthout that depleted uranium on the seafloor was no more harmful than any other metal, a statement that flies in the face of numerous scientific studies that have proven otherwise. Sullivan believes that, by making that statement, the Navy “has disavowed responsibility for all of this toxic ocean pollution.”
Savabieasfahani said that while the Navy may be content to add depleted uranium to the environment that already has high levels of man-made pollutants, we should not share its complacency.
“A cluster of worsening environmental phenomena go hand-in-hand with that accumulation of pollutants,” she told Truthout. “Global warming, mass extinctions, ecosystem collapse, food-web modification, physical and biological changes in organisms, endocrine disruption, and a pandemic of neurodevelopmental disorders in children accompany those rising background pollution levels. Peer-reviewed research is already showing steep declines in the biodiversity of ecosystems.”
How Much Contamination?
According to Sullivan, who studied the EIS, the Navy plans to introduce 20,000 tons of contaminants into the environment, which is the equivalent of dumping a load of toxins the size of a Yorktown-class aircraft carrier scattered throughout the seas and sounds of coastal Washington, Oregon and Northern California.
As staggering as that amount is, it does not even include contaminants that have been released over the last six decades of Naval exercises in oceans around the globe (the plans mentioned in these documents are limited to Pacific Northwest waters).
The aforementioned list of toxic compounds the Navy has, is and is planning to release into the environment via its exercises are documented in EPA Superfund site lists as known hazards and all of them are highly toxic at both acute and chronic levels.
For example, perchlorates are highly soluble in water and according to the EPA, “generally have high mobility in soils.” They have been found in breast milk, target the thyroid gland and affect children and fetuses more than they affect adults.
Lithium causes behavioral changes that, in large animals and humans, can be fatal. Ingestion of merely one to two grams of picric acid would cause severe poisoning. TNT remains active underwater, can bioaccumulate in fish, including salmon, and can cause developmental and physiological problems, according to scientific studies. HMX and RDX explosives are both well documented to be extremely toxic and dangerous.
Sullivan says all of this raises questions about why there are no regulations preventing the creation of Superfund sites (polluted locations that require intensive clean-up) in the ocean. “We depend on salmon, yet the Navy is creating massive ecosystem-wide pollution right under our noses,” Sullivan said. “How can they not see that it will be generations from now who reap the bitter harvest?”
Savabieasfahani agreed and took it a step further, issuing a dire warning.
“Toxic metals, such as lead and uranium, are biomagnified,” she explained.”‘Biomagnification’ means that toxins get more concentrated in an organism which ingests plants or animals containing that toxin. For example, contaminated fish can pass on large doses of toxin to their human consumers.”
The 20,000 tons of contaminants the Navy plans to release into the ocean in the coming years do not include the additional 4.7 to 14 tons of “metals with potential toxicity” that will be “released” annually in the inland waters of both Puget Sound and Hood Canal, according to Naval documents. Given that those numbers are for one year only, in 20 years, between 94 and 280 tons of heavy metals will be released inland (in addition to what will be released in the open ocean).
It is also worth noting that two actual Superfund sites along Washington’s inland shorelines are both on Naval property.
“In addition to the toxic contaminants deliberately dumped, what happens to their land-based toxic brews when torrential rains like we had in October overwhelm storm water runoff systems?” Sullivan asked, then provided the answer. “They end up in Puget Sound and Hood Canal.”
Devils in the Details
Naval documentation also reveals that over the next 20 years, the weights of the various contaminants include 6,739 tons of unrecoverable sonobuoys (including their
animal-entangling parachutes and batteries which leach lithium for 55 years), and 396 tons of small-caliber rounds, the latter comprising only 2 percent of the total weight of “expended materials.”
The Navy’s flares, which weigh between 12 and 30 pounds apiece, are used 824 times annually, adding up to 16,480 flares weighing between 200,000 and 500,000 pounds over 20 years. The Navy admits that the flares leave toxic residues whenever they are used, saying, “Solid flare and pyrotechnic residues may contain, depending on their purpose and color, an average weight of up to 0.85 pounds of aluminum, magnesium, zinc, strontium, barium, cadmium, nickel, and perchlorates.”
Meaning, at a minimum, seven tons of toxic pyrotechnic residues are to be introduced into Pacific Northwest waters in the next 20 years.
Looking at explosives for training alone, the Navy plans to use 29,024 pounds annually, amounting to 290 tons over the next two decades.
Another issue is unexploded ordnance, or, as it’s commonly known, “duds.”
At current Navy rates for duds only, we would see an additional nine tons of dangerous residual explosive material fired into Pacific Northwest waters every 20 years, sitting on the ocean floor, leaching dangerous toxics.
Moreover, not all contaminants immediately sink and bind to or get encapsulated by sediments. Some materials can be transported by ocean currents. Because the Navy’s EIS uses ocean dispersal and chemical degradation as its rationale for claiming no adverse impacts on species or habitats — anywhere, ever — it should be noted that the expended material from local warfare exercises may not tell the whole story. In other words, perhaps all of the contaminants in question should be added together to get an idea of the full impact.
For example, every other year, according to the Navy, they are authorized to dump up to 352,000 pounds of expended military materials, by way of them being shot, dropped and exploded, into the Gulf of Alaska. This includes up to 10,500 pounds of hazardous materials, such as cyanide, chromium, lead, tungsten, nickel, cadmium, barium chromate, chlorides, phosphorus, titanium compounds, lead oxide, potassium perchlorate, lead chromate, ammonium perchlorate, fulminate of mercury and lead azide. The Navy is dumping much of it into Essential Fish Habitat in the Gulf of Alaska at peak times of fishery and marine mammal presence, impacting and harming a multitude of species. They are also carrying out a similar dumping process in Pacific Northwest waters.
In the Navy’s 2015 Northwest Training and Testing EIS, it quotes several studies, saying, “contamination of the marine environment by munitions constituents is not well documented.” This is often the Navy’s claim, used to show its actions are not deleterious to the environment, when “not well documented” actually means that it has not looked for or measured its impacts on the environment. Regardless, the need for more data does not mean it is scientifically sound to assume there has been no damage.
In the section of the 2015 EIS on Cumulative Impacts, the Navy says, “Long-term exposure to pollutants poses potential risks to the health of marine mammals, although for the most part, the impacts are just starting to be understood.” The impacts include ” … organ anomalies and impaired reproduction and immune function.” There are multiple other examples of such doublespeak within the Navy’s own documents.
Another example is in the EIS section on Sediments and Water Quality, where the Navy claims that “slow but significant removal” of two types of explosive material (RDX and HMX) happens through a chemical reaction whose speed is dictated by the pH [acidity] of seawater. Adequate proof is not provided by the Navy, yet risks to human health from these toxins has been extremely well documented.
It could be argued that the Navy’s gross negligence of its environmental impacts amounts to a federal agency passing off wishful thinking as science. The toxic legacy of this negligence will be passed down to generations far beyond our own.