Thanks to films like Battleship, we all know that war games are a crucial part of the US Navy‘s defense strategy. They provide ships’ crews with the necessary training and expertise that they will need in future war scenarios. Often though, they involve sinking old vessels for practical target practice, and this has caused an uproar in the side of environmental groups for years. As the navy biennial Pacific training exercise (called RIMPAC) begins, protesters are campaigning against the sinking of three retired warships, saying that their destruction will cause serious environmental damage.

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Over the course of the war games, warships, planes and submarines from 22 nations will be using the three vessels for target practice. However, environmental activists say that each time a ship is destroyed, hundreds of kilograms of polychlorinated biphenyl compounds (PCBs) found in the hull are released into the water. The ship’s infrastructure can also contain asbestos and heavy metals — all of which can cause lasting damage to marine life.

The three vessels that are scheduled to be sunk were also built before PCBs were banned, so the EPA estimates that each ship could contain about 50 kilograms of PCBs. However, speaking to New ScientistRainer Lohmann at the University of Rhode Island did a rough calculation and estimated that PCB levels would only rise above normal ocean concentration within 1 kilometer of the ships and are unlikely to harm marine life even in that area. But he also noted “it’s not an ethical thing to do.”

However, there is an environmental precedent. According to researchers who have done tests near the USS Oriskany – an aircraft carrier sunk for training in 2006, results found that fish and sea mammals living in the area had raised levels of PCBs. Interestingly, while the EPA considers the dumping of PCBs, asbestos and heavy metals in US waters to be illegal, the US Navy is exempt.

With these Oriskany results, three environmental groups have filed a federal complaint against the EPA in December, aiming to end the Navy’s exemption. “The navy should play by the same rules as everyone else,” says Todd True of Earthjustice in San Francisco, which represents the groups. The protesters also add that inflatable targets or simulations can work just as well as real targets – but the explosions just aren’t as impressive.

+ RIMPAC 2012

Via New Scientist

Images: Wikimedia Commons and  Marion Doss