Submitted by the office of Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson
In a letter to the federal government, Attorney General Bob Ferguson announced on Jan. 17, his intent to join a lawsuit challenging the U.S. Navy’s process to scrape the hulls of decommissioned vessels, which leads to ongoing pollution of Sinclair Inlet and harms salmon and orcas.
To clean a 60,000-ton, decommissioned aircraft carrier before transport, the Navy scraped the hull of the ship in Puget Sound in January 2017. The process released approximately 50 dump truck loads of solid materials, including copper and zinc, into the sound. Copper and zinc are highly toxic to marine life. A study conducted by the Navy found that the level of pollutants it released far exceed standards allowed by Washington state. The initial release of these metals, and their continued discharge of pollutants into the inlet, violate state and federal laws.
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 while cleaning the hull of a decommissioned aircraft carrier.
In the letter, Ferguson asserts that the release of the pollutants violated both federal and state Clean Water Acts, as well as the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA). The Attorney General advises the federal government that he will seek to join the groups’ case if the Navy does not resolve the issue within 60 days.
Ferguson and the groups ask the court to require the Navy to clean up its recent discharge of toxic materials and prevent it from releasing more into Puget Sound in the future.
“Keeping Puget Sound clean is vital to the health of Washingtonians and our struggling salmon and orcas,” said Ferguson. “The Navy must follow the same rules as everyone else to protect our waters.”
The Navy’s Puget Sound Naval Shipyard near Bremerton provides dock space for decommissioned, non-operational military vessels. These ships await dismantling, recycling and disposal. To complete this process, the Navy transports the vessels to other facilities around the U.S.
In 2016, the Navy decided to transport the ex-USS Independence, a decommissioned aircraft carrier, to 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.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency 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. 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 several pollutants, including copper and zinc, into the waters and sediment of Sinclair Inlet. Copper and zinc are highly toxic to marine life and affect 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.
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, further releasing toxic materials into the water. With the lawsuit, the parties seek to stop the Navy from contaminating the site in the future.
In the letter, Ferguson writes: “We ask that the Navy remedy its ongoing violations of the [Clean Water Act] and Washington law, and abate the imminent and substantial endangerment under RCRA, at the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard by removing from Sinclair Inlet the debris from the ex-Independence and taking any other action necessary to stop and remediate the ongoing discharge of pollutants and related environmental harm caused by the Navy’s in-water hull cleaning activities.”
The Navy’s longstanding activities at Puget Sound Naval Shipyard have resulted in significant amounts of hazardous waste being released into Sinclair Inlet for more than a century. Due to the heavy contamination, the EPA considers Sinclair Inlet a Superfund site, and the federal government has spent millions attempting to clean its waters. The inlet currently does not meet standards for human recreation, fish consumption or the protection of aquatic life.
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.