Old Ships May Give New Life To Reefs
By JACK DORSEY, The Virginian-Pilot 19 April 2004
reproduced with permission of THE VIRGINIAN PILOT

  The Navy is offering 25 decommissioned ships, including four aircraft carriers, to coastal states interested in turning them into artificial reefs.

  One of the carriers is the Oriskany, a combat veteran of Korea and Vietnam, which could be sunk as early as this summer in the Gulf of Mexico. Plans call for it to come to rest in 211 feet of water, 22 miles offshore from Pensacola, Fla. The 888-foot, 30,800- ton carrier would be the largest vessel ever purposely sunk in the United States.

  The three other flattops are the Forrestal, Independence and Constellation. The “Connie” was decommissioned last August after playing a key role in the war in Iraq.

  By making the offer, the Navy is looking to reduce the size of its inactive ship inventory. The reef program is an alternative to the more costly plan to cut them up for scrap.

  For states, the ships could have appeal as reefs that would lure marine life – as well as recreational divers and fishermen.

  As attractive as an aircraft carrier reef might sound to local dive and tourist industries, Virginia likely won’t have one because of the wide and relatively shallow continental shelf off its shore, said Mike Meier, who coordinates artificial reef projects for the Virginia Marine Research Commission.

  A carrier would have to be sunk in at least 200 feet of water. That doesn’t show up until 50 miles off Virginia’s shore, a bit too far to make such a project profitable for dive boats, he said. “A carrier just won’t cut it,” he said.

  Meier might like to have some of the Navy’s smaller ships and says he would take all the worn-out subway cars anyone cares to give.

  Artificial reefs throughout U.S. waters have flourished in recent years, using everything from 80 of the Army’s old M-60 tanks, sunk in the Gulf of Mexico, to a Boeing 737 aircraft, sunk off Miami.

  Virginia, like North Carolina, already uses railroad box cars, Navy Liberty ships, barges, military aircraft and some pre formed concrete structures, shaped like igloos, for artificial reefs. They are in the Chesapeake Bay and in the Atlantic, some as close as eight miles from shore off Chincoteague and Parramore Island on Virginia’s Eastern Shore.

  Neither state has anything like what’s on the Navy’s newest list, which, in addition to the aircraft carriers, includes 11 destroyers, five cruisers, two frigates, a dock landing ship, a patrol gunboat and the 530-foot long combat stores ship San Diego.

  These are ships that didn’t make the cut for foreign military sales or any other form of disposal.

  Congress has set a deadline of 2006 for the disposal of more than 70 obsolete ships moored in the middle of the James River, off Fort Eustis in Newport News. An earlier plan to cut up as many as 13 of the ships in the United Kingdom has stalled because of environmental challenges.

  Environmental concerns continue to be a stumbling block to the program. Virginia won’t accept any ships until the Environmental Protection Agency streamlines the process, Mier said.

  Even Florida, which is just months away from taking ownership of the Oriskany, is exercising caution because of the uncertainties with environmental rules and the high cost of getting the carrier ready for sinking.

  The EPA has yet to come out with firm standards about how the Navy ships are to be cleaned, said John Dodrill, who coordinates Florida’s artificial reef program for the Fish and Wildlife Commission.

  Florida, which has more than 2,000 artificial reefs – 450 of them ships – doesn’t intend to accept the title to the Oriskany until the EPA gives its blessing and until the Navy tows the ship to the site and sinks it, Dodrill said.

  The last large military ship sunk was the 510-foot dock landing ship Spiegel Grove in May 2002 off Key Largo, Fla. It was a near disaster.

  A local tourist development group, aided by dive boat charter companies that took out bank loans for the project, raised $1.6 million.

  When the ship refused to sink – its stern was on the bottom but its bow trapped air and arched out of the water – another $300,000 had to be raised to finish the job. It came to rest on its side, not its bottom.

  Another reef project, using the former 520-foot missile tracking ship Vandenberg – a member of the James River “Ghost Fleet” – has been delayed for nearly seven years while sponsors try to raise as much as $2 million to sink it off Key West, Dodrill said.

  With such costs rising, Dodrill said the U.S. Transportation Department’s Maritime Administration is proposing grant funding to clean some vessels.

“If it’s cheaper to scrap a ship, they will do it,” he said. “But if they can provide the ship to a local government equal to or less than the cost of scrapping it, they will.”

  That apparently is what the Navy has decided with the Oriskany. Following 25 years of service, it was decommissioned in 1975, stricken from the Naval Vessel Register in 1989 and sold for scrap in 1995. The contractor defaulted.

  The ship was repossessed by the Navy and towed to the Beaumont Reserve Fleet in Texas, where more than 70 people, working nearly around-the-clock, are trying to get it ready for sinking, Dodrill said.

  “Today the Navy estimates it will cost in excess of $4 million to scrap it, so if they put as little as $2.1 million to $2.8 million into the ship to get it ready to reef, it is a money-saving option for them,” Dodrill said.

  Plans call for the Oriskany’s flight deck to be just 100 feet below the surface, with its steel superstructure rising to within 50 feet of the surface. The ship’s interior will be closed to divers for safety reasons.

  “We don’t want anyone penetrating the interior of the ship below the main deck and into the hangar bay,” Dodrill said. Still at issue is how the Navy plans to sink the big carrier.

  The Japanese and American carrier war in the Pacific during World War II showed that it takes a lot to sink these ships, Dodrill said. “The Navy builds its ships to avoid sinking.”

Reach Jack Dorsey at 446-2284 or jack.dorsey@pilotonline.com © 2004 HamptonRoads.com/PilotOnline.com