Washington Environmental Council, Suquamish Tribe, and Puget Soundkeeper announce plan to sue U.S. Navy

Washington Environmental Council, Suquamish Tribe, and Puget Soundkeeper issued a Notice of Intent to Sue the United States Navy for Clean Water Act violations. The Navy has been scraping the hull of a mothballed aircraft carrier in Sinclair Inlet just outside Bremerton, WA, disregarding pollution-control measures and without obtaining a discharge permit from the United States Environmental Protection Agency.

While little is visible above the water surface, divers are physically removing hull waste containing marine organisms and harmful copper-based paints. Copper-based paints were used specifically to reduce marine life growing on hulls because copper coatings slowly leach toxic dissolved copper into the waters around the vessel. Even in very small quantities, copper is toxic to salmon and marine life farther down the food chain. The Ex-Independence has been at Puget Sound Naval Shipyard for 19 years and will be towed to Brownsville, Texas for dismantling.

Up to 73 dump truck loads of waste material from scraping the 1000-ft long hull of the decommissioned carrier is estimated by the Suquamish Tribe to be openly discharged to marine water and sediment in what is currently a Superfund Cleanup Site. The area around the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard has seen significant public funds spent to restore and remediate decades of contamination. “Unfortunately, our local Navy continues to ignore reasonable pollution controls to protect an ailing Sinclair Inlet. Anyone who has worked on boats knows you cannot “gently scrape” 3 inches of barnacles off of a hull without chipping off plenty of paint and hull material,” said Mindy Roberts, Puget Sound Director for the Washington Environmental Council. “I also don’t understand why we get all of the pollution in Puget Sound and the jobs go to Texas.”

Sinclair Inlet is on the Clean Water Act Section 303(d) list of impaired waters. Monitoring indicates that the sediment in Sinclair Inlet is not yet within healthy ranges for copper, and actions are needed to clean up existing contamination to protect marine organisms.

“The Suquamish Tribe raised concerns about the potential impacts of this project during government-to-government consultation with the Navy. We did this in face-to-face meetings, by telephone and letter. Despite these efforts, the Navy moved forward as planned without adequately determining the impacts of the hull cleaning, including the release of toxic substances into Sinclair Inlet waters and adding to existing sediment pollution. Though we do respect the Navy’s mission, we do not believe they should be exempt from regulations that other vessel owners routinely follow,” said Leonard Forsman, Chairman of the Suquamish Tribe.

Hull cleaning operations are typically conducted in a dry dock facility where contaminated wastes can be collected and properly treated and disposed. The Navy began its hull cleaning operation January 6, without Clean Water Act permits, and without complying with the Vessel General Permit for Discharges Incidental to the Normal Operation of Vessels (VGP) or the proposed rule for the Uniform National Discharge Standards for Vessels of the Armed Forces.

Puget Soundkeeper and Executive Director Chris Wilke added “This is an egregious action in clear violation of the Clean Water Act, and we’re ready to hold the Navy accountable for their actions, particularly here in Puget Sound. Clean water benefits everyone, and we can’t afford to backslide on Puget Sound recovery.”

Navy regulations require the carrier’s hull be cleaned prior to its transfer to Brownsville, Texas in order to prevent invasive species travelling with the ship. Once the towed carrier reaches Texas, it will be dismantled and disposed.

Washington Environmental Council and Puget Soundkeeper are represented by Richard Smith of Smith & Lowney, PLLC.