The Navy’s Toxic Legacy, Part 3


Sockeye salmon run. NOAA photo.

November 15, 2016 – What else besides depleted uranium has been and will be dumped by the Navy in Pacific Northwest waters? Find out in this article published today, by Truthout investigative reporter Dahr Jamail. He includes a list of toxic chemicals that are usually found on Superfund site lists of the most poisonous substances known to man. You can’t keep dumping this stuff in the coastal oceans for decades and then disavowing responsibility for it without bringing suffering to the animals and people who live there. Jamail’s article cites the Safe Drinking Water Act definition of “contaminant;” the government creates “not to exceed” levels based on what it knows about each, to minimize human exposure to a large list of them. The trouble is, new information about toxicities emerges fairly frequently, and exposure standards are sometimes revised.

As we reported last week, the Navy closed the books on its Northwest Training and Testing EIS by signing a Record of Decision, which basically means, “Let the destruction begin.” We do not say that facetiously; the Navy’s job out here is to teach its personnel to destroy targets by explosive or weaponized electronic means. Training is necessary for safe operations, but at the expense of more than a million marine mammals?


Orca whale

How to read a Navy EIS:You can start at the beginning and feel your brain melt, or you can use keywords and the search function available for PDF files, as long as the files are not too old. This is important because the latest EIS, published November 10, is about Growler jets, the third piece of this giant puzzle, and you can find it here: Growler Draft Environmental Impact Statement Available for Public Review Comments are due on January 25, 2017.

Download a piece of the EIS, open it and start using keywords. This lets you bypass boilerplate gobbledygook. Let’s try the keyword “explosive.” Take the percentage, for example, of High Explosive compounds (HE) by weight, shown on a chart: Medium and large-caliber projectiles are 48% HE, and missiles, bombs and sonobuoys are 21, 24 and 7 percent HE, respectively. Some projectiles have explicitly stated loads, such as torpedoes, which have an explosive weight of about 1,000 pounds. By counting the numbers of projectiles fired (where that information is available,) and multiplying by the percentage by weight of explosive, you can estimate approximate contaminant loads, even though it’s important to understand that you’ll miss a lot, and also that some but not all of these compounds will be consumed in explosions. Also, the Navy only covered training but not testing, so your estimates will be low.


Jamail’s article also talks about tons of duds that don’t explode as planned. These are euphemistically named “residual explosive material” resulting from “ordnance failure.” About them the Navy says, “Chemical, physical, or biological changes in sediment or water quality [from these “unconsumed explosives”] would be measurable, but neither state nor federal standards or guidelines would be violated.”

We have several problems with that disingenuous statement. First, since the Navy operates just beyond 12 miles offshore, which is also the boundary where state and federal clean water standards and guidelines would apply, how then could such standards possibly be violated outside a jurisdictional boundary? Can the Navy prove their claim, even if they were within the 12-mile limit, especially over time as the metal jackets containing raw unconsumed explosives corrode and act like extended-release poison capsules? We doubt it. The Navy quoted a study admitting, “leaching of unconsumed explosives is considered a major source of sediment contamination in seas and waterways, and contaminants can subsequently move from sediments and accumulate in aquatic organisms.”


A 2007 report from the Army about closing open burning/open detonation pits at Sierra Army Depot in California said, “…direct contact with UXO [unexploded ordnance] would primarily present a safety hazard” due to potential for inhalation of particulates, direct contact with surface and subsurface soil, ingestion of groundwater, and indirect pathways such as consumption of contaminated crops and livestock if the contaminated areas were used for farming.”

Would someone please tell us why similar processes might not occur in an underwater ecosystem? Check for yourself the lists of known carcinogens, DNA-damaging chemicals, public health alerts, and toxicology reports; you’ll find all of these compounds. So it boggles the mind in ways that not even the current election season could, to read the Navy’s statement in its October 2015 EIS: “Most of the components are subject to a variety of physical, chemical, and biological processes that render them benign.” Excuse us please, while we throw up.

We should ask our government: Do you really know? Who is actually out there thoroughly measuring for contaminants, and where is the funding for research, analysis and mitigation?

If you hear a ringing silence it’s because these agencies are stretched so tight they probably wouldn’t know when standards are being violated because they’re not able to monitor, and they sure as hell won’t know where to measure because the Navy isn’t telling where they put the poison.


At current firing rates for duds only, Jamail’s article states that it would add up to an additional 9 tons of dangerous residual explosive material in our waters every 20 years; since they’ve been training here for six decades, there could be 27 tons of dud explosives sitting on the bottom, leaching dangerous toxics into our waters. As one of the most serious sources of major contamination in our seas, waterways and in the food web, it boggles the mind that the Navy’s EIS all but dismisses it.

It begs another question: why are there so many duds, and why is the Navy allowing lack of quality control in manufacturing to put its ships and submarines at risk by firing so many duds? Cleaning up the lapses in manufacturing to reduce the dud rate would be a good first step to increase safety and reduce pollution.

A good cumulative impacts analysis includes detailed discussion of the overall impact that can be expected if individual impacts are allowed to accumulate over time. With this much toxic contamination scattered along the coasts of a three-state area, there will be both individual and cumulative impacts as the amounts increase over the years. The Navy has proposed a 20-year time frame, but provided the public with a cumulative analysis that is incomplete, substandard, and completely lacking in hard data.

According to the President’s Council on Environmental Quality, “Evidence is increasing that the most devastating environmental effects may result not from the direct effects of a particular action, but from the combination of individually minor effects of multiple actions over time.” In the section of the 2015 EIS on Cumulative Impacts, the Navy says, “Long-term exposure to pollutants poses potential risks to the health of marine mammals, although for the most part, the impacts are just starting to be understood.” The impacts include “…organ anomalies and impaired reproduction and immune function.” One has to think that with this statement, the Navy has put the lie to its own specious claim that most toxics dumped in the ocean are “rendered benign.”

In the EIS section on Sediments and Water Quality, the Navy claims that “slow but significant removal” of two types of explosive material (RDX and HMX) happens through a chemical reaction whose speed is dictated by the pH [acidity] of seawater.Adequate proof is not provided, yet risks to human health from these toxins is well documented. It’s also commonly known that the oceans are acidifying, and that the pH of seawater affects the capacity of the living community of marine bacteria and benthic organisms to bio-degrade or encrust these toxic components, even to build shells on their own bodies. In May 2014, NOAA released a study on the acidic waters off the West Coast that are causing the shells of marine snails to disintegrate.


These marine snails are part of the diet of pink salmon, mackerel and herring. Can anyone say that’s not something to be concerned about?

So, an acidifying ocean would considerably slow the rate of neutralization, but the Navy does not acknowledge that. Without these organisms, RMX explosive would take at least 100 years and HMX will take more than 2,100 years to disappear. So why is climate change not factored in? The Navy knows all about it, and ocean acidification, too.

Since climate change is known to change the chemistry and qualities of seawater, including its pH, and since climate change is not addressed by the Navy in this context of the span of future centuries of leaching and degrading of such toxins, and since the quantities being dumped actually do provide a “reasonably forseeable” number to work from, then claiming they are “rendered benign” in seawater is not just laughable, it’s an insult to future generations.


In addition to all the Navy’s omissions and disingenuous statements, such as the whopper that its massive increases are “adjustments,” how can a government agency keep telling us that decades of firing and dumping these materials into the ocean isn’t causing a toxic buildup? At what point is that buildup dangerous? Is anyone being given the funding to take a comprehensive and holistic look at wildlife behavior changes, cancers, metabolic, reproductive and immune system problems, or a host of other problems?

At present, ocean dumping is predominantly banned by international law. “Almost nothing is known about the tolerances of deep-sea organisms to the gradual build-up of anthropogenic chemicals, and there is a potential for changes to be widespread if they do occur,” said Fred Grassle, benthic ecologist and director of the Institute of Marine and Coastal Sciences. “Measurement of pollutants, descriptions of deep-sea communities from many parts of the ocean, and in situ toxicity studies are urgently needed.”

How can the Navy insist there are no adverse impacts to species or humans year after year, or unilaterally define what’s “acceptable” when the science insists that levels of concern for so many of these toxins haven’t even been identified?

How they do it is by claiming 63 percent of the entire one billion dollar federal budget for public relations; the Navy can afford to tell us just about anything they want, while expecting us to believe it.

Salmon Art



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