U.S. Navy Agrees to Stop Cleaning Mothballed Hulls in Puget Sound

USS Independence under tow, bound for demolition at Brownsville, Texas (file image)

Published Jan 29, 2020 10:46 PM by The Maritime Executive

On Wednesday, Washington State's attorney general announced a settlement requiring the U.S. Navy to stop scraping the hulls of decommissioned ships in Puget Sound, where the service has a large shipyard and layup facility. The consent decree also requires the Navy to begin a multi-million dollar project to reverse environmental damage caused by scraping bottom coating off the hull of the USS Independence during underwater cleaning. The consent decree is the result of a lawsuit brought by Washington State, the Suquamish Tribe and two environmental NGOs, who together contended that the Navy violated the Clean Water Act during the cleaning.

According to the Navy, the USS Independence's hull was scraped for the purpose of environmental protection. In 2017, she was scheduled to be towed to Brownsville for demolition, and the National Marine Fisheries Service recommended removing the extensive growth on the hull beforehand in order to prevent the spread of marine invasive species. Both the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Washington State Department of Ecology recommended that the Navy clean off Independence's hull in drydock in order to contain debris, but the Navy elected to do the cleaning in the water. In doing so, the Navy's Bremerton facility released about 70 dump-truck loads of solid materials into Sinclair Inlet, including an unknown quantity of copper and zinc from her bottom coating. The plaintiffs contended that this unpermitted release was a violation of the Clean Water Act. 

The U.S. Navy did not admit any wrongdoing in the consent decree entered Wednesday, and it denies that any violation occurred.

Under the terms of the decree, the Navy is legally required to stop in-water scraping for inactive ships in Puget Sound for 10 years, except for small-scale cleaning required for maintenance and monitoring. In addition to the moratorium, the Navy must reduce the environmental damage caused by the scraping of USS Independence by placing a thin layer of clean sand on the affected portions of Sinclair Inlet. 

The order applies to six mothballed vessels at Bremerton, including the carrier USS Kitty Hawk. It does not explicitly apply to Navy activity in other regions.