The Navy’s Toxic Legacy, Part 1


October 17, 2016 – Depleted uranium, thousands of sonobuoys litter Pacific Northwest oceans – what are implications for public health, fisheries? Commercial and recreational fishing and being out of doors are mainstays of economic, social, spiritual and tribal life in the Pacific Northwest; our waters have historically provided rich harvests free of dangerous manmade chemicals. But that’s changing. This article, published to day in Truthout, has more details and an interview with a toxicologist.

Last week the Port of San Diego sued the Navy over an underground plume of toxic chemicals that threaten to contaminate the entire bay.

The US Navy’s war gaming in our Pacific Northwest waters, with bullets, bombs, missiles, chaff, flares, drones, sonobuoys and expendable targets, many containing harmful chemicals such as high explosives, is increasing. It’s happening in coastal, offshore and inland waters from California to Alaska. They are dumping these toxic materials in areas designated as Essential Fish Habitat, while conducting their explosive and sonar exercises during peak times when important fisheries and marine mammals are present.

WA Essential Fish Habitat

The US Navy’s 2015 Northwest Training and Testing Final EIS (Environmental Impact Statement) estimates that in thousands of warfare testing and training events per year including gunnery, missile, torpedo and other explosive firings, the Navy produces nearly 200,000 “components or events” designated as “stressors” each year, just in our waters. It doesn’t define or measure the words “component” or “event,” but claims that two thirds of the number of “military items with metal components” dumped annually are small-caliber rounds. However, these small rounds make up only 2% of the total weight of all expended components. So where’s the rest? This 3-part series of articles will try to find out. With a few exceptions, all of our references come directly from the Navy or the federal agencies with whom it has consulted. It was just a matter of combing through the documents.

Let’s start with sonobuoys, or “sonar buoys.” We start here because there are so many of them.


Sonobuoy being dropped from an aircraft.

Weighing between 36 and 936 pounds apiece, with some containing up to 5 pounds of explosives, they are dropped from aircraft and are never recovered. Sonobuoys have been in use for decades, and make up 34 to 36% of the Navy’s “expended materials” by weight. Here is a screen shot from a brochure on a modern sonobuoy deployed; you can see that entanglement is a hazard for wildlife.

Deployed sonobuoy from brochure

Screen shot of deployed sonobuoy from manufacturer’s brochure.

Sonobuoys now in use have 8-hour life spans. Afterward, their debris either floats on ocean currents for a time, or, if scuttled, they sink to the bottom. Curiously, while the total number of sonobuoys was never mentioned in biological opinions from either the National Marine Fisheries Service (2015) or the US Fish and Wildlife Service (2016), despite the fact that in 2014 the Navy announced (in a Supplemental Draft to its EIS) that it would increase the number of sonobuoys it dumps into our coastal waters, from 20 to 720 each year. However, that number does not jibe with the fact that in 2010, the National Marine Fisheries Service had already authorized the use of 1,035 sonobuoys per year on average, totaling 5,175 over five years. So in 2016 we are starting on our second five-year cycle, with thousands more sonobuoys to come, as the next cycle lasts for 20 years, which means at least 20,700 dead sonobuoys littering our local ocean waters. Five Navy Annual Range Complex Unclassified Exercise Reports for the Northwest Training Range, from 2010-2015, provide some, but not all, numbers. Oddly, the Navy’s cumulative impacts summary for all species is classified. Why? The public deserves to know what the impacts are over time, to the species we care about.

The batteries from dead sonobuoys will leach lithium into the water for 55 years. Lithium can cause severe neurotoxic effects and birth defects in humans; its effects on marine wildlife are largely unknown. Heavy metals are another hazardous component of sonobuoys.

The US Fish and Wildlife Service estimated that a total of 39 “…explosive sonobuoys would be dropped per year during the winter, within 50 nautical miles of shore, for 20 years…” That’s interesting, because the Navy named 142 explosive sonobuoys for testing. And the National Marine Fisheries Service in its Biological Opinion said there will be “an average of 140 detonations (70 sonobuoys per year.)” This is not all of the explosive sonobuoy activity the Navy proposes. We presume the wildlife agencies selected only the sonobuoys predicted to be in locations and habitats that could harm the species they manage, but after 20 years of this you’re still talking between 780 and 2800 explosions that could directly harm listed species. And we wonder – why at least three different sets of numbers on the same topic, from three government agencies? It confuses the public.

MAMU - credit Audubon

The reclusive and threatened marbled murrelet.

Washington’s population of federally listed marbled murrelets, a diving seabird, has been declining at an average rate of 7.5% per year, which is unsustainable. The Navy’s activity may not make the species go extinct throughout its range, but it will surely help lower the numbers of murrelets in Washington. However, this article won’t be discussing the effects on wildlife of all that pinging, explosive detonation, and potential entanglement in thousands of sonobuoy parachutes and thousands of yards of line; it will focus on contaminants.

In all, 5,175 expendable 36-pound sonobuoys every 5 years are contributing 186,660 pounds, or 93 tons, of contaminants to our waters. That’s the equivalent weight of 53 midsize cars. Over 20 years, which is the Navy’s intent, it’ll add up to 373 tons, or about 213 midsized cars. But think about the older sonobuoy models already down there, which a 2009 Draft EIS described as weighing 936 pounds. The Navy could reasonably be expected to have used 250 per year over, say, a 20-year period, so 5,000 of them would add another 1,980,000 pounds, or 990 tons, or another 566 midsized cars, all made of heavy metals and leaking batteries. In a 40 year time span there could be the toxic equivalent of 1,363 tons, or 779 midsized cars made of materials that the ecosystem off the Washington-Oregon coast doesn’t need.

Remember, sonobuoys comprise only 34 to 36% of the total weight of expended components. The Navy says, “Hazardous materials leach slowly, and are not expected to substantially affect the environment.” Also, “…many of the components of concern are coated with plastic [PVC] to reduce corrosion, providing an effective barrier to water exchange. In instances where seawater corrodes the sonobuoy, that corrosion takes at least 40 years.” We would like to know when and where there are instances of seawater not eventually corroding metals such as are used in sonobuoys. That statement seems to imply that most of us need not worry about it in our lifetimes.

When you think of a single year’s contribution of toxic contaminants in a very specific area of a very large ocean like the Pacific, it’s easy to conclude, as the Navy repeatedly has, that it’s just a small amount, a drop in the bucket. It’ll be dispersed by ocean currents, neutralized by chemical reaction with seawater, or “rendered benign” by organisms that consume them. As an example of how lightly this is being treated, in the Navy’s 2015 Northwest Training and Testing EIS Appendix on Public Health and Safety, the words “toxic” and “contaminants” are not mentioned once. In the Appendix on Cumulative Impacts, those words are mentioned but never discussed in the context of decades of munitions and heavy metals dumping. Instead, the Navy minimizes its own contributions by lumping them in with all other forms and sources of pollution, as if to say, “Hey, we’re not the only ones polluting the ocean.”

The Navy’s justification follows its mantra that the ocean is too big to be harmed, and actually says this: “Most of the components are subject to a variety of physical, chemical, and biological processes that render them benign.” Benign? Really? Can depleted uranium be rendered benign? If so, then what is the Navy’s definition of “benign?”

Gunner's mates inspect linked belts of Mark 149 Mod 2 20mm ammunition before loading it into the magazine of a Mark 16 Phalanx close-in weapons system aboard the battleship USS MISSOURI (BB-63).

Photo credit: Navy. Gunner’s mates inspect linked belts of Mark 149 Mod 2 20mm ammunition before loading it into the magazine of a Mark 16 Phalanx close-in weapons system aboard the battleship USS MISSOURI (BB-63).

Let’s look at the depleted uranium legacy they’ve given us right here in the Pacific Northwest. In 1989, the Navy began phasing out its controversial use of armor-piercing depleted uranium (DU) in, among other weapons, 20-mm cannon shells. DU was supposed to be phased out by 2008, but a December 2008 Draft Navy EIS said, “Under the no-action alternative, a total of 7,200 rounds of 20-mm cannon shells [28% of total gunshells] would be used by close-in weapons systems (CIWS) training. Rounds are composed of depleted uranium (DU) as well as tungsten.”


“Various terminal effects.”

In the unique way the Navy handles NEPA processes, a no-action alternative in an EIS never means “no action,” but rather describes a pre-existing baseline activity. So, since the Navy was proposing at the end of 2008 to continue on its existing course of action using DU rounds, it does not look like depleted uranium was phased out in 2008. One would think that because the Navy knew DU was controversial, that it would keep track of where they put it in 2009 (public pressure finally forced the Navy to stop using DU in April 2009.) But by the time the Final EIS was published in September 2010, the Navy said, “No site-specific records are available to identify the areas in which such rounds were expended, but areas of accumulation likely exist beyond 12 nm from shore in the deep waters of [Warning Area] W-237.” (Northwest Training Range Complex Final EIS/OEIS, September 2010, Section, page 3.3-13)

Here is a map of the Navy’s W-237 “Warning Area.”

Navy Warning Area-237

Navy Warning Area 237. Note overlap with boundaries of Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary map below.

And here is a map of the boundaries of the Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary:


Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary. Its boundary extends well past 12 nautical miles, which is where the Navy dumped depleted uranium for years.

The Navy did not speculate on the actual amount of depleted uranium resting on the sea floor in Warning Area-237, large portions of which are within the boundaries of the Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary. But it did quote a 2006 British study on 31 tons of depleted uranium at the bottom of an oceanic firing range, put there between 1982 and 2003. The study concluded that radiation wasn’t washing up on the shoreline where people could be exposed to it, so there was no problem.

But what about fisheries, and ecosystems beyond the shoreline? According to a Japanese study in 2003, “…radioactive contamination of the environment by DU would remain almost indefinitely.” The study also said, “low-level radiation is more likely to cause biochemical abnormalities than intensive high-level radiation (“Consequence of the Chernobyl Catastrophe” edited by E. B. Burkova).” Further, it said, “It is wrong to make light of the hazard of low-level radiation.”


Phalanx gun system from which DU was fired in Pacific Northwest Training Range. This is a giant machine gun that can fire 4,500 rounds per minute.

How much DU per 20-mm Navy cannon shell was there? According to a February 2014 publication called Health & Drugs – Disease, Prescription & Medication, there were 180 grams of depleted uranium in each 20-mm round. Multiplied times 7,200 DU rounds per year, that’s approximately 1,296 kilograms, or 2,857 pounds of DU per year. But these guns fired 3,000 rounds per minute and were upgraded to fire 4,500 rounds per minute, so you’re looking at potentially just a couple minutes of firing to get to 7,200 rounds. For how many years has this been going on? DU has been in use by the US military since the early 1980s. So, speculating on the possibility of DU being used in training and testing firings of 7,200 20-mm cannon shells per year, in Pacific Northwest waters only, between, say, 1985 and 2008, the potential amount of DU resting on the bottom, from 20-mm cannon shells only, could exceed 34 tons. That’s close to the amount cited in the British study referenced by the Navy.

It’s commonly known that the military also used depleted uranium in much larger projectiles, such as missiles, so our estimate of DU, while admittedly speculative, comes from the Navy’s own numbers and is likely a gross underestimation.

What’s the big deal with using depleted uranium? They’re not classified as nuclear weapons. According to the above referenced paper produced at the University of Wroclaw in Poland, “While depleted uranium is less radioactive than natural uranium, it still retains all the chemical toxicity associated with the original element. This toxicity is made evident in missile conflict. When a projectile composed of DU hits a target, up to 70% of the DU vaporizes through the intense heat into a fine dust, which in turn settles in the surrounding area. While DU does prove effective and has a very high rate of destroying its targets, there is a great side effect. The after-blast of DU continues with an army of toxic substances surrounding the exploded area. The size of these toxic particles is smaller than 5 microns, and a human being can inhale anything under 10 microns. The DU radioactive dust settles in the soil, water and air, which then can be moved great distances by plants, underground water and wind currents. This transfer to drinking water or locally-produced food has enough potential to lead to significant exposures to DU. Once inhaled, depending on aerosol speciation, inhalation may lead to a protracted exposure of the lungs, blood and various other systems and begin to emit a dose of alpha radiation.” Now granted, this is about what happens on land, but we don’t know what happens at sea, so it’s all we have.

The report goes on to say, “Chronic low-dose exposure to depleted uranium also alters the genetic structure of developing organisms. Adult animals that were exposed to depleted uranium during development display persistent alterations in behavior and brain chemistry, even after cessation of depleted uranium exposure. Despite its reduced level of radioactivity, evidence continues to accumulate that depleted uranium, if ingested, may pose a radiologic hazard.”

Radiation is a different hazard from contamination by chemical toxicity. Depleted uranium is capable of both. This kind of dumping by the military is not new, it’s just harder to see when you do it in the ocean. A very large number of highly contaminated Superfund sites are also formerly used defense sites. Restoration has been costing the military $14 to $18 billion. These sites are covered under a suite of federal laws designed to prioritize and clean them up. Unfortunately, except for waters immediately surrounding a naval base, such as Kitsap Bangor, which has two Superfund sites,[2] there appears to be no responsibility or liability for pollution that on land would be regulated under these federal laws. Why is that?

Thankfully, the Navy no longer uses depleted uranium; in fact, those two words are only mentioned once in the 2015 Final EIS, in answer to several public comments of concern. The Navy proudly cited Best Management Practices along with Navy procedures and policies, concluding, “Any procedures or practices that benefit ocean sediments and water quality in turn, benefit all marine life in the ocean, from plants and invertebrates, to marine mammals.”

Yep, they should know.


Salmon fishing.

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