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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Navy Trash Dumping

Air Date: Week of

Betsy Bayha of member station KQED in San Francisco reports on the debate over the dumping of trash and toxic waste from Navy ships. The Navy has until the end of this year to comply with the same strict dumping regulations as commercial vessels, but the service says it can't meet the deadline, and has asked for at least another five years to come into line. The issue has come back into focus recently because of the court-martial of a sailor for refusing orders to dump waste into the open ocean.


CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth, I'm Steve Curwood.

It's illegal to dump plastics and certain other kinds of garbage at sea, but you can ignore the law, if you're the United States Navy. The Navy has a special exemption from the dumping laws, and that exemption has irked a number of people, including sailor Aaron Ahearn, who jumped ship a few months ago rather than follow orders to dump plastic trash overboard. As Ahearn's case makes its way through the military justice system, attention has turned to the Navy's commitment to phase out most overboard disposal by the end of this year. But as Betsy Bayha of member station KQED reports from San Francisco, the Navy is now saying it can't meet that deadline.

BAYHA: When sailor Aaron Ahearn went AWOL from the USS Abraham Lincoln last spring, it once against focused national attention on the Navy's policy of dumping tons of garbage, including plastics, into the ocean. . The 20-year-old surfing enthusiast left the ship after refusing what he says were orders to dump plastic garbage, broken equipment, and toxic waste into the sea. Since then, other sailors who served on the same ship have stepped forward to say they too were concerned about the dumping that they witnessed. Jason Girard served on the Abraham Lincoln until May of last year.

GIRARD: They'll throw so much trash overboard that it'll just float for miles and miles behind the ship, it just looks like, you know, you could follow the ship by their trash. Even if you are twenty miles away, you can't see the ship, you could just easily follow the trash right to the ship, 'cause it just floats in these big plastic bags.

BAYHA: The Navy tosses more than 28,000 tons of garbage overboard each year, including more than 500 tons of plastic - plastic that won't break down in the environment and that can harm or kill marine mammals, tortoises, and seabirds. This dumping of garbage - including plastic - is completely legal. Six years ago, Congress gave the Navy until the end of this year to comply with an international maritime treaty banning the disposal of plastics at sea. But with the deadline approaching, the Navy has asked for more time to comply. Captain Dick Steinbrugge, the Navy's Assistant Director for Environment, says unlike commercial vessels, Navy ships have thousands of crew members at sea for months at a time.

STEINBRUGGE: Ships are in many ways like small cities. You might imagine an aircraft carrier when it's deployed at sea with its full air wing as a small city of, say, 6,000 people. And they generate the same kinds of trash and solid waste a small community might, except they have no landfills to dispose of it.

BAYHA: The Navy says it will be able to stop dumping plastics overboard, once it installs new specially designed trash compacting equipment on the 340 surface ships in the fleet, which Steinbrugge says will take another five years. In the meantime, he says the Navy has made a concerted effort to reduce its dumping by implementing new regulations to hold plastic garbage on board if ships are within 20 days of port and by developing an environmental education campaign that includes posters, flyers - even a slick videotape.

(Sound of video, announcer: "The Navy is strongly committed to the environment and protection of natural resources . . ." fade under)

BAYHA: Some environmental groups working on the issue say they're pleased with the Navy's effort, but they also question the seriousness of the service's commitment to really changing its ways. Vicky Nichols is executive director of the California-based group Save Our Shores, which has been working with the Navy to clean up its act.

NICHOLS: I think the Navy needs a real attitude shift. They need to take the responsibility very seriously. It has to go beyond an orientation when they first arrive of a few brochures and a couple of posters, and at the end of their ship run a piece of paper. It's got to be instilled in them that they are stewards and they've got to care and there has to be some oversight. .

BAYHA: And instilling an environmental ethic may be difficult. Former sailor Jason Girard says the Navy's rigorous "shipshape" standards create an incentive for sailors to ignore environmental regulations and toss all non-essentials overboard, including cans of paint, toxic solvents and broken equipment.

GIRARD: Everything that's not functioning or looks bad or is broken in your department is considered a hit in your inspection. You get points taken away in your inspection for it.. So any thing that's sitting around that's not really supposed to be there, doesn't function right, gets tossed overboard because they don't want it around.

BAYHA: Official Navy policy prohibits the dumping of toxics overboard although Captain Steinbrugge admits that improper disposal of waste does happen, sometimes. Still, he says, that's not a problem unique to the Navy.

STEINBRUGGE: Well, I certainly can't say that that never happens. You know, that could happen in town. We used the in-town example before. Somebody might take a can of paint and dump it down the storm drain. I'd like to think that never happens in my neighborhood, but I suspect it does once in a while and if nobody sees it , nobody reports it, you know, there you are.

BAYHA: Steinbrugge says that ultimately the success of any environmental program will depend on each individual sailor. The Navy's anti-dumping regulations could get a boost from Congress. Sources say lawmakers are considering writing the Navy regulations into Federal law, which would carry much stiffer penalties for violations. But lawmakers active on the issue also say the Navy is making a good-faith effort to deal with the dumping problem. And Congress is likely to extend the service's special exemption and allow ships to continue dumping plastic for several more years. For Living on Earth, I'm Betsy Bayha in San Francisco.



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