CAPE MAY — Next spring’s sinking of the USS Arthur W. Radford will pollute the ocean with toxic waste, cost Americans jobs and hurt marine life by attracting fish to one area where they will be over-harvested, according to a report by the Basel Action Network, a national nonprofit group that focuses on environmental and trade issues.

The report from the Seattle-based group comes just months before the scheduled April sinking at a site 30 miles from the Cold Spring Inlet called the Deljerseyland Reef. The site is about equidistant from New Jersey, Delaware and Maryland, and all three states are funding the project. The Radford will be the largest ship ever reefed off the East Coast.

Colby Self of BAN said scuttling the 9,000-ton Radford will take away jobs in the recycling industry, pollute the ocean with toxic Polychlorinated biphenyls and lead to overfishing. BAN describes itself as an organization that fights dumping of toxic materials and promotes sustainable solutions to the waste crisis.

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Reef coordinators in the three states have said it will be the greatest addition to artificial reefs on the East Coast and a major boon to the fishing and scuba diving industries.

Bill Figley, who initiated the project as New Jersey’s Reef Coordinator, and who is now retired, said the Radford will produce more jobs on the ocean floor than it would if it were recycled.

Figley said if the steel were recycled, it would go to China to be turned into products Americans purchase, worsening the country’s trade deficit.

Figley also said the Radford will be cleared of all toxic materials before sinking and will help create more marine life.

Economic argument

Self said a recycling company offered the Navy $1 for the Radford, but instead the Navy is paying $200,000 toward the reef project. The three states are also contributing $200,000 each toward the $800,000 cost.

“It doesn’t sound like a lot at $200,000 but it is waste. The Navy has (reefed) 73 vessels in 10 years and it does add up,” Self said.

BAN said the 73 vessels cost recyclers 20,000 jobs as they lost 560,000 tons of steel, copper and aluminum to the ocean floor.

Ban claims the last four reefed military ships cost $253 a ton, more than $25.35 million, to sink, while recycling would have cost $67 a ton and saved taxpayers $21.5 million.

Figley said the economic benefits from recycling are short-term, but as a reef the Radford will keep spurring the economy.

“That ship will be underwater for 100 to 150 years and provide all types of fishing and diving activities. You’re talking hundreds of millions of dollars in return, far exceeding recycling,” said Figley.

He said the cost of sinking the aircraft carrier Oriskany in 2006 off the Florida Gulf of Mexico coast was paid for in its first year as a reef by boosting the state’s tourism industry.

Figley said New Jersey fishing groups are paying most of the state’s costs and the project is producing some recycling jobs as copper wiring, aluminum superstructure and other materials are scrapped off the ship, which is docked at the Philadelphia Naval Shipyard.

“A 50-man crew has been there for four or five months. That brought local jobs to Philadelphia,” Figley said.

The bigger economic argument, according to Figley, is that 20 percent of all saltwater fish caught by anglers off New Jersey are from reefs. New Jersey’s recreational fishing industry is worth $643.6 million a year, according to a 2006 federal study. Shipwrecks are also used by commercial fisherman and in New Jersey that industry generates about $1 billion in fish sales per year.

Self argues recycling jobs never end but continue over and over as materials are recycled. In the ocean, the Radford will eventually corrode into the sea. He said if it were recycled it would generate $6 million in recyclable metals.

Impact on fisheries

Self said there is no evidence reefs improve fisheries. He said studies have shown artificial reefs merely attract fish already in the ocean, which concentrates them to one small area and leads to overfishing.

Figley counters that most of the marine life on a reef, 95 percent by weight, is not even fish. Most of the 150 or so species that colonize are invertebrates. About 70 percent of the biomass on New Jersey reefs is mussels, which Figley said clean the water by filter-feeding.

“Invertebrates can’t grow on sand. There’s no doubt these invertebrates wouldn’t be alive if not for a hard structure, which is a ship. The first fish are attracted but then it provides habitat for small fish that grow up to be large fish,” Figley said.

Self argues rocks and other natural materials should be used for reefs but not ships, subway cars and other manmade materials.

“Who knows what they’re putting down there,” Self said.

BAN is questioning whether ships are being sunk with PCB’s, mercury and other toxic materials. Self said the federal Environmental Protection Agency is investigating the contractor preparing the Radford for sinking, the American Marine Group, for failure to remove PCB’s from three vessels sunk off Delaware since 2007.

Amie Howell, the EPA’s Delaware liaison, said the agency is investigating after receiving a letter from the Basel Action Network. The EPA’s David Sternberg said the vessels in question are the Atlantic Mist, Gregory Poole, and the Yog-93.

Figley questions if the Radford, launched in 1975, has any PCB’s since they had been outlawed by that time. Self said the ban wasn’t fully enforced until 1979.

Figley said once a ship is cleaned for reefing, the amount of oil and other hydrocarbons “is miniscule.” He said BAN should worry about ships still in use, since they leak oils, emit diesel exhaust and have a “tremendous carbon footprint.”

“If they want to complain, how about getting rid of all shipping,” Figley said.

There may be no clear winner in the argument, but Figley said the publicity alone can be damaging. The Navy is currently discussing how to dispose of a new generation of mothballed vessels, including the aircraft carrier USS Forrestal.

“It’s the kind of thing that kills the program. The Navy does not like bad publicity,” Figley said.

Contact Richard Degener:

609-463-6711

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