U.S. government vows to defend environment—except when military is around

Why no one should be surprised over environmental exemptions granted to the navy during RIMPAC and beyond.

Will Caron

As part of the joint military RIMPAC exercise, the U.S. navy’s “Great Green Fleet,” along with warships from the 21 other participating nations, have fired on and sunk two retired U.S. naval vessels off the coast of Kauai.

On Monday, active warships sank the 522-foot Ex-Tuscaloosa (LST 1187) while, last week, the RIMPAC ships sank the 569-foot Ex-Ogden (LPD 5). The sinking of these ships is part of a target practice ship disposal exercise within RIMPAC known as SINKEX (sinking exercise).

According to the Basel Action Network—an anti-toxic chemical dumping non-profit—these two SINKEX exercises have not only released chemicals, possibly including highly toxic Polychlorinated biphenyl (PCB) compounds, into Hawaiian waters, but have also wasted an estimated $8.9 million worth of recyclable metals. The Navy, on the other hand, says SINKEX is necessary as it gives crews the opportunity to gain proficiency in tactics, targeting and live firing against surface targets.

Last year, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) denied a petition submitted by an environmental coalition comprised of the Sierra Club, the Basel Action Network and the Center for Biological Diversity, which called for the first SINKEX program review in more than 15 years. In that time, more than 100 unchecked ship sinkings have occurred. Not only did the EPA deny the petition for the program review, it actually clarified that the Navy could sink up to 100 pounds of pure molecular PCBs into the ocean with each SINKEX vessel.

“This deliberate act of ocean disposal is an overt breach of the ocean dumping bans mandated in the London Convention, as well as the persistent organic pollutant disposal requirements of the Stockholm Convention,” said Colby Self, a spokesperson for the Basel Action Network (BAN), in a press release sent out today. “The U.S. is leading 21 other nations down a destructive path that condones ocean pollution despite their moral and legal obligations.”

According to BAN, the EPA’s SINKEX permit clarification confirms that the Navy is exempt from existing and long-standing environmental laws. The government, therefore, is allowing a bending of existing prohibitions—at both the national and international level—on dumping chemicals like PCBs directly into the marine environment, where these chemicals have been documented by the EPA itself to have caused serious harm. (Fun fact: until it stopped production in 1977, Monsanto was the source of 99 percent of the PCBs used by U.S. companies.)

SINKEX also runs counter to President Obama’s ocean protection mandates, including Executive Order 13547, “Stewardship of the Ocean, Our Coasts and the Great Lakes,” which was established in 2010 as a national policy to ensure the protection of the health of ocean ecosystems. SINKEX also stands contrary to Executive Order 13514, “Federal Leadership in Environmental, Energy, and Economic Performance,” which includes a call for all Federal agencies to prioritize recycling as policy.

Yet neither the EPA-exemption nor the contradictions inherent in the president’s Executive Orders should come as a surprise to us. The United States has shown time and time again that it is more than ready to exempt its military from policy initiatives that would otherwise regulate that military’s ability to practice the art of war (or wage it).

A perfect example is President Obama’s Executive Order expanding the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument southwest of Hawaii. As pointed out in an earlier essay by Craig Santos Perez, these monuments appear to be environmental sanctuaries because they are off-limits to private development. The Navy, on the other hand, is granted full access to these areas, which often become strategically important training grounds and forward bases.

The Navy will say that these environmentally destructive U.S. military bases are just as necessary for security as RIMPAC is, while environmentalists will argue that the cost of such exercises and bases is too high. Perhaps both are valid positions, but we’ll never get a chance to see what an alternative to the current military-prioritized status quo would look like if we continue to allow such a complete lack of regulation and oversight over the military. With the planet already suffering incredible damage from world-wide environmentally destructive practices, can we really afford to continue down this path?