There's an old theatre expression, "go out with a bang." When it comes to decommissioned warships, the U.S. Navy takes that old expression literally. Instead of putting them on display or scrapping them for parts, many old ships are towed out to sea and blown up.
The practice of blowing up old naval vessels, known in the Navy as SINKEX (short for Sink Exercise) has generated some concerns by environmental groups because of the risk to marine life from the various toxins that may be on board the old vessels. But the Navy counters that this is one of the few opportunities it has to train its personnel on the sinking of enemy craft using live weaponry.
Environmental concerns about the practice often center on PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls), chlorine-based substances that were often used in the manufacture of electronic equipment, such as transformers, capacitors and electric motors. These and other toxins may be found on the ships being destroyed, even though the Navy does try to remove them from the ships before blowing them up.
Since 1999, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has required the Navy to document what toxins were removed from ships prior to their destruction, and what toxins remained. In return, the EPA has exempted the Navy from its rules governing the dumping of toxins in the ocean. Critics charge that the Navy's self-reporting about the toxins left onboard when the boats are destroyed is questionable.
In addition to PCBs, environmental groups worry about lead and mercury on board these old ships, as well as fuels and lubricants, though the Navy claims that these materials are largely removed before the ships are destroyed.
Another toxin that was frequently used as insulation in these old warships is asbestos. Asbestos is a naturally-occurring mineral, which, when breathed in, can cause mesothelioma, a deadly form of cancer. Fortunately, however, the explosions must take place at least 50 nautical miles from shore, which leaves little chance of airborne asbestos coming ashore in quantities significant enough to cause anyone harm.
Although the risks to marine life from the Navy's SINKEX program may be very real, the risk of asbestos exposure is extraordinarily limited. Thus the bottom of the ocean may be the best place for these old hulks, at least where asbestos is concerned.
If you have developed asbestosis or mesothelioma while serving in the U.S. Navy, contact an experienced personal injury attorney to discuss your options and pursue your right to compensation.