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  • By Mar-Vic Cagurangan

Peril of the ocean: U.S. military admits to dumping toxic waste into waters

By its own admission, the U.S. Navy said “discharges incidental to the normal operation of a vessel of the Armed Forces have the potential to negatively impact the aquatic environment.”

An estimated 18,000 personnel and more than 180 aircraft from the U.S. Pacific Command participated in the 2016 Valiant Shield exercise in Guam and around the Marianas Island Range Complex last September. The biennial field training exercise involved the USS Ronald Reagan, nine surface ships, the Bonhomme Richard Amphibious Ready Group with three amphibious vessels.

When the war games concluded, the military left behind tons of toxic waste — dumped into the ocean — including heavy metals, motor gasoline and chemicals that are harmful to humans and marine life. By its own admission, the U.S. Navy said “discharges incidental to the normal operation of a vessel of the Armed Forces have the potential to negatively impact the aquatic environment.”

In a document posted on the Federal Register, the U.S. Navy said the discharges contain a wide variety of constituents that can cause thermal pollution and can contain aquatic nuisance species, nutrients, pathogens, grease, metals and other toxic and non-conventional pollutants with toxic effects.

The practice of dumping toxic military waste into the waters has been ongoing for decades, making the U.S. armed forces notorious for being the world’s worst polluter.

As military waste dumping will continue in the succeeding decades, the U.S. Navy is seeking to complete its three-phase Uniform National Discharge Standards for Vessels of the Armed Forces. The proposed rule would cover all coastal states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, Guam, American Samoa and the Northern Mariana Islands.

The first phase, which was developed in 1999, implemented the rules and standards for 14 of the 25 discharges that require impact mitigation. Phase II of the rule-making process began in October 2016 and was closed for public comment on Dec. 6, 2016. The Navy seeks to regulate the remaining 11 discharges including catapult water brake tank and post-launch retraction exhaust, controllable pitch propeller hydraulic fluid, deck runoff, firemain systems, graywater, hull coating leachate, motor gasoline and compensating discharge, sonar dome discharge, submarine bilgewater, surface vessel bilgewater/oil-water separator effluent, and underwater ship husbandry.

Among the water contaminants produced by such discharges include oil and grease, detergent and soap residue, bacteria, pathogens, as well as metals such as cadmium, chromium, lead, copper, zinc, silver, nickel, and mercury.

These discharges are generated by military vessels operated by U.S. Navy, Military Sealift Command, U.S. Marine Corps, U.S. Army, and U.S. Air Forces, U.S. Coast Guard and other than a time- or voyage-chartered vessel.

“While it is unlikely that these discharges would cause an acute or chronic exceedance of the EPA recommended water quality criteria across a large water body, these discharges have the potential to cause adverse environmental impacts on a more localized scale due to the end-of-pipe nature of the discharges,” the U.S. Navy said.

The proposed rule would be implemented in the navigable waters of the United States, territorial seas and the contiguous zone and would extend to fresh and marine waters and can include bodies of water such as rivers, lakes and oceans.

“When implemented, the proposed discharge performance standards would reduce the adverse environmental impacts associated with the vessel discharges, stimulate the development of improved vessel pollution control devices, and advance the development of environmentally sound vessels of the Armed Forces,” the U.S. Navy said.

Among the 11 discharges to be regulated is catapult water brake tank and postlaunch retraction exhaust, the oily water skimmed from the water brake tank and the condensed steam discharged during catapult operations.

Discharges from these systems “could negatively impact receiving waters due to the presence of lubricating oil and small amounts of metals generated within the catapult system itself,” the Navy said.

The exhaust discharge contains oil and water in the condensed steam, nitrogen (in the form of ammonia, nitrates and nitrites, and total nitrogen), and metals such as copper and nickel from the piping systems. “Among the constituents, oil, copper, lead, nickel, nitrogen, ammonia, bis(2-ethylhexyl) phthalate, phosphorus, and benzidine could be present in concentrations that exceed the EPA recommended water quality criteria,” the Navy said.

“Prohibiting the discharge of catapult water brake tank effluent and limiting the number of post-launch retraction exhaust discharges to only those required to support necessary testing and training operations would significantly limit the potential for release of the associated constituents of concern and protect the quality of the receiving waters.”

Another discharge is produced by deck runoff generated from precipitation, freshwater washdowns, wave action, or seawater spray falling on the weather deck or the flight deck that is discharged overboard through deck openings. The Navy said such spills may contain oil and grease, petroleum hydrocarbons, surfactants, soaps and detergents, glycols, solvents and metals that may compromise the quality of water.

The Department of Defense and the Environmental Protection Agency have consulted with other federal and local agencies regarding the reduction of adverse environmental impacts associated with military discharges. On Aug. 5, 2015, the Guam Coastal Management Program received a 57-page document from Frank Stone, the Navy’s acting deputy director for Energy and Environmental Readiness Division.

“If a state determines that the protection and enhancement of the quality of some or all of its waters require greater environmental protection, the state may prohibit one or more discharges incidental to the normal operation of a vessel of the Armed Forces, whether treated or not, into those waters,” the Navy said. A state is also provided the opportunity to request the EPA to establish a regulation that would prohibit discharges in specified area within its jurisdiction

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