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Navy to resume use of retired warships for target practice


A crew waits for removal of a piece of a scrapped private vessel at the Port of Brownsville, Texas, in February. The company doing the work also dismantles Navy ships.

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PEARL HARBOR, Hawaii -- The U.S. Navy is resuming its practice of using old warships for target practice and sinking them in U.S. coastal waters. The decision ends a nearly two-year moratorium spurred by environmental and cost concerns.

Three inactive vessels -- Kilauea, Niagara Falls, and Concord -- are to be sent this month to a watery grave off Hawaii by torpedoes, bombs, and other ordnance during the Rim of the Pacific naval exercises.

The military quietly lifted the moratorium last year after a review of the requirements, costs, benefits, and environmental impacts of the program, the Navy said.

The Navy last used target practice to dispose of an old ship in 2010.

Previous targets have ranged from small vessels to aircraft carriers such as the USS America, which was more than three football fields long.

Conservation groups argue that the ghost ships should be recycled at a ship-breaking facility. Concerns about the long-lasting effects of toxic pollutants onboard the ships spurred a lawsuit by those groups to force the Environmental Protection Agency to better catalog and regulate sinking exercises.

The case, filed in U.S. District Court in San Francisco, is ongoing.

The groups said they did not plan to seek an injunction to stop the Navy from restarting the exercises.

"We are appealing to the Navy to continue their moratorium at least until our case is heard," said Colby Self of the environmental group 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 Navy says the sinking exercise offers valuable live-fire training for times of war and provides clean vessels for at-sea, live-fire exercises.

For decades, the Navy destroyed the vessels with little or no regulation.

Then in 1999, the EPA ordered the Navy to better document toxic waste left on the doomed ships while removing as much of the material as possible.

In return, the EPA exempted the military from federal pollution laws that prohibit any such dumping in the ocean.

The Navy is still in charge of estimating the amount of pollutants onboard after the ships are prepared for sinking. In addition, the Navy must file an annual report with EPA estimating the amount of PCBs, or polychlorinated biphenyls, carried by the vessels.

Vice Adm. Gerald Beaman, commander of the combined task force running the exercises, said Monday that each ship will be stripped of PCBs and other contaminants such as asbestos, as required by the Navy's agreement with EPA.

The Navy must also conduct the exercises at least 50 nautical miles from shore and in water at least 6,000 feet deep.

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