KODIAK — A U.S. Navy plan to attack and sink up to two ships per year in the Gulf of Alaska as part of live target practice has alarmed environmental activists in Alaska and elsewhere in the United States.

The plan, approved in May after years of public hearings and meetings, including some in Kodiak, allows expanded training in addition to the live target practice.

For almost two decades, the U.S. Navy has participated in the annual multi-week Northern Edge exercises, the largest armed forces training in Alaska. The new plan allows the Navy two expanded training exercises per year in a section of the Gulf 24 nautical miles from the Kenai Peninsula.

Environmentalists have closely watched Navy exercises in the past, but it’s the proposal to sink ships and use active sonar that has them alarmed.

“My understanding is that in the past they have not used sonar and they have not done the ship-sinking exercises they can now conduct in the Gulf,” said Kelly Harrell, executive director of the Alaska Marine Conservation Council.

Before the plan was accepted, the Navy undertook years of biological studies and public hearings to create an environmental impact statement, or EIS.

“The Navy did agree to not sink the ships in habitat areas of particular concern,” Harrell said, but continued, “We were very concerned about the unwillingness of the Navy to accept most of the recommendations of the National Marine Fisheries Service.”

Those recommendations included having observers present to safeguard aquatic species and note any large fish kills.

The Alaska Department of Natural Resources has sided with the Navy, writing in a 2010 letter that it believes the exercises will not affect Alaska resources.

Kaja Brix, NOAA’s director of protected resources for Alaska, said the Navy already polices itself when it comes to that sort of thing, but because these exercises are larger and more complex, environmental monitors are more concerned.

“We haven’t had this kind of activity that has gone on before in Alaska,” Brix said.

Environmental observers are particularly concerned about possible PCB contamination from ships sunk in the Gulf. PCBs were widely used in electrical equipment before the U.S. Congress banned them in 1979 because of environmental concern. In high concentrations, they can cause liver damage or cancer.

Navy protocol requires that any ships purposefully sunk be cleaned of PCBs and other toxic material, but it’s not a perfect process. The EIS filed by the Navy for the expanded Gulf exercises states: “Some vessel materials with PCBs would remain on board when the vessel is sunk.”

In 2006, the Navy sank the aircraft carrier USS Oriskany in 212 feet of water off the coast of Florida to create the world’s largest artificial reef. Since that sinking, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission has recorded high PCB levels in some species of fish living near the Oriskany.

To prevent that problem in Alaska, the Navy has promised to sink any target practice ships in water at least 6,000 feet deep and 50 nautical miles offshore.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, at least one group has filed a petition to shut down the Navy’s program to sink ships in the Gulf of Alaska.

As yet, the Navy has not scheduled any sinkings.

“The bottom line is there are no (ship sinking exercises) planned now for all of 2011,” said Lt. j.g. Joe Painter, U.S. Pacific Fleet spokesman. “That EIS just opened up opportunities for us to potentially do it, but nothing’s planned.”

Contact Mirror writer James Brooks at editor@kodiak

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