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Dahr Jamail | Naval Exercises Add Trillions of Pieces of Plastic Debris to Oceans

The Navy doesn’t keep records of toxins released so it can conclude that its activities have no environmental impacts.

US Navy helicopters fire flares alongside a US aircraft carrier on August 2, 2012. (Photo: Mass Communication Specialist Seaman Zachary A. Anderson / US Navy)

For the next two decades, the US Navy will inject hundreds of thousands of pounds of flares and billions of metal-coated glass fibers into ocean waters off the coasts of Washington and Oregon.

When the last two decades are added in, the Navy will have left behind more than half a million pounds of flares and trillions of microfibers of chaff (a radar countermeasure dropped by aircraft) by the year 2037.

Additionally, as Truthout previously reported, upcoming naval exercises will inject 20,000 tons of heavy metals and explosives into the seas.

These shocking numbers are due to a widespread domestic military expansion, which entails a dramatic uptick in the number of naval training exercises conducted each year.

When one looks more closely at what it means for that much toxic material to be added to the oceans, the news becomes even more disconcerting.

No Significant Impact?

The Navy claims its ramped-up activity will have no significant impacts.

However, Karen Sullivan, a retired endangered species biologist who cofounded the West Coast Action Alliance, which acts as a watchdog of naval activities in the Pacific Northwest, disagrees with that claim.

“When have they ever claimed there would be significant impacts?” Sullivan asked, in an interview with Truthout.

The Navy makes no-impact claims on a regular basis, but conducts its own research to back up the claims.

“The data they produce never fails to back up their ‘no significant impact’ claims,” Sullivan explained. “To wit: The mission statement of the Navy’s ‘Living Marine Resources (LMR) Program,’ a taxpayer-funded government research program run by the Navy, is to ‘ … improve the best available science regarding the potential impacts to marine species from Navy activities … while preserving core Navy readiness capabilities.’ Which translates to, let’s not get too carried away with conclusions we don’t like.”

There are 22 ongoing research projects taking place at LMR, and some are genuinely collaborative scientific efforts. But others are not.

For instance, the lead scientist for a study on the effects of explosions on marine species works for the Space and Naval Warfare Systems Center, a Navy-owned division that, according to the Navy, “will be the Nation’s Technical Leader for Integrated Information Warfare Solutions.” The lead scientist for another study, on beaked whales, works for the Naval Undersea Warfare Center — as do eight of the 11 other authors.

“This fox-in-henhouse science is not new,” Sullivan explained. “Take flares, for example. Among other things, they contain hexavalent chromium, which is highly carcinogenic when ingested or inhaled in small quantities.”

However, when confronted with this fact, the Navy persistently quotes an Air Force study from 1997, which concluded that it is safe to fire 8.2 billion flares containing 2.4 billion grams of hexavalent chromium over a 1.6 million acre area of land, without significantly increasing the risk of cancer. That conclusion is based on a human being living 70 years and not being exposed to any other type of carcinogens besides chromium.

Another example of the Navy’s deceptive research practices relates to chaff. Chaff fibers are about the thickness of a human hair and range in length from a third of an inch to about three inches. The armed services now use a lot of it worldwide for peacetime training. Most people are aware of what fiberglass does to human skin: The tiny fibers can irritate and make you itch for days. They can irritate the eyes, cause contact dermatitis, and if inhaled, can cause breathing difficulties.

“Chaff fibers are larger than fiberglass, but are not without risk, especially considering the huge volumes that the Navy is dropping from the sky,” Sullivan said. “Considering that chaff is labeled by the Navy as an ‘ingestion stressor,’ and considering the length of time chaff has been in use, and the fact that until 1987, chaff strands were made of solid aluminum coated with strips of lead to increase flutter, and considering the amount released (43.7 tons of it in one year over one 2.7 million acre range alone), the public has a right to be concerned.”

Once deployed, chaff fibers can remain suspended in the air for 10 or more hours, raising concerns about air quality, safety from unintended interference with FAA or other radar systems, risks to other aircraft engines, impacts to grazing livestock, and impacts on birds and bats. Seabirds have been known to swallow plastic canister parts and land birds have been observed building nests with chaff. The amount of time chaff remains airborne depends on the combination of local weather conditions and the altitude of deployment.

However, the Navy itself appears unperturbed about chaff. “Predictably, the military has downplayed public concerns for decades,” Sullivan said.

Despite the Navy’s near-silence on the topic, chaff still occasionally makes it into public conversations. For example, TV weather people have mentioned it, as it tends to show up on their radar when explaining weather systems. In one case in 2010, a former US marine described chaff and called out the military for using it — and covering up its use — on air. Another example can even be viewed on Fox News. Once a chaff cloud drifted across the state of Florida, and was so big on the TV weather radar that the entire center of the state was blotted out.

More Impacts

In the late 1990s the Air Force, Navy and Marines dropped an average of 2.5 million bundles of chaff per year, each bundle weighing six to seven ounces and containing plastic parts, on 53 ranges in the United States, including offshore waters of the Pacific Northwest. Which means that, at the time, the yearly average of chaff dropped on US soil and in coastal waters was 547 tons. If this number stayed steady, we would have seen at least 11,000 tons of chaff dropped over the last 20 years. However, advocates say that number may well be much higher.

Moreover, according to the Navy, the use of chaff in the Pacific Northwest will increase from the current 2,900 “events” per year to 5,000 events. The maximum number of chaff canisters that the Navy says it would drop in one place is 360, or about 160 pounds of chaff containing 5.3 billion fibers. Thus, it is challenging to figure out how the military came up with its “worst-case scenario for environmental concentration” estimate for all that chaff dropped in one place: only 0.02 fibers per square meter. That figure assumes the chaff plume spreads out evenly over 200 square miles, and it does not count multiple chaff events that occur in one location (in this case, within the Pacific Northwest naval training region). Multiply those 360 canisters by 5,000 events and, at a minimum, the Navy is injecting 26.5 trillion chaff fibers — or 400 tons of chaff — per year into the environment. The chaff is being dropped quite near the shoreline — sometimes as close as 12 miles off Washington’s coast.

“Does chaff drift inshore to more sensitive habitats?” asked Sullivan. “Absolutely. What are the chemical and physical impacts of chaff on soil functioning? What are the implications to human and wildlife health, from so much aerial deposition? What happens if the water body where chaff lands is not the ocean, but an enclosed inland lake, where concentrations of metals build up?”

When it comes to how different sea life will be impacted by the Navy’s exercises, the devil is in the details.

The Navy’s own so-called environmental impact statement (EIS) claims the potential for impacts from military-expended materials like flares and chaff to sea turtles are low, in part because there are so very few sea turtles.

Yet, the EIS adds, “If a leatherback sea turtle were to incidentally ingest and swallow a projectile or solid metal high-explosive fragment, it could disrupt its feeding behavior or digestive processes.”

The Navy concludes that its activities won’t cause a “population-level” effect, meaning it won’t lead to extinction for leatherback sea turtles, but it admits: ” … sublethal effects from ingestion of military expended materials other than munitions used in testing activities may cause short-term or long-term disturbance to an individual turtle.”

The Military’s Contradicting Statements

When it comes to flares, what can we make of the Navy’s assessment of environmental impact? The aforementioned 20-year-old Air Force report often cited by the Navy says that when a burning flare cools, its toxic combustible materials condense from a vapor state to solid particles. Unfortunately, because information was not available about the actual size of these particles or the way they condensed, the Air Force found it “hard to speculate” as to whether breathable particles were produced at all.

The report did say that over time, emissions from all these flares would not cause the Environmental Protection Agency to classify our air as failing to meet air quality standards, and it acknowledged the lack of scientific research on the impacts of flare materials on soil and water.

“Most of the documents reviewed came to the conclusion that no impacts would occur but did not support their findings with empirical data,” it said (emphasis added). And because flare dud rates were unknown, the authors assumed a low total of 20 duds per year.

The Navy does not keep records of when and where it releases multiple chaff cartridges. This lack of recordkeeping allows them to conclude that marine mammal exposures are “difficult to calculate.”

As Truthout has previously reported, the Navy also fails to keep track of where it fired depleted uranium rounds into the ocean over the course of decades, making it impossible to calculate exactly how much depleted uranium remains in the waters off the Washington coast. It was only possible to estimate the total amount (34 tons, at the minimum), by adding up figures found in multiple Navy documents.

Contradictions abound throughout the Navy’s assessments of what it is dropping into our oceans. On the subject of chaff, the Navy has claimed that chaff will have “no significant impact” on marine life, yet in its Northwest Training and Testing EIS, it states, “Some marine animal species within the Study Area could be exposed to chaff through direct body contact, inhalation, and ingestion. Chemical alteration of water and sediment from decomposing chaff fibers is not expected to occur. Based on the dispersion characteristics of chaff, it is likely that marine animals would occasionally come in direct contact with chaff fibers while either at the water’s surface or while submerged….”

Again citing the Air Force report, the Navy’s final word on chaff’s impact on marine mammals is dismissive — yet simultaneously admits significant impact.

“Because of the flexibility and softness of chaff, external contact would not be expected to impact most wildlife (U.S. Air Force 1997) and the fibers would quickly wash off shortly after contact,” the Navy report reads. “Given the properties of chaff, skin irritation is not expected to be a problem (U.S. Air Force 1997). The potential exists for marine animals to inhale chaff fibers if they are at the surface while chaff is airborne. Arfsten et al. (2002), Hullar et al. (1999), and U.S. Air Force (1997) reviewed the potential impacts of chaff inhalation on humans, livestock, and other animals and concluded that the fibers are too large to be inhaled into the lungs. The fibers were predicted to be deposited in the nose, mouth, or trachea and either swallowed or expelled.”

More Naval Obfuscation

In the Navy’s 2015 Northwest Training and Testing EIS, it quotes several studies, saying, “contamination of the marine environment by munitions constituents is not well documented.”

The Navy has consistently made this claim in an attempt to show that its actions are not harmful to the environment, but it does so simply by claiming the impacts are “not well documented.”

“That statement actually means that it has neither looked for nor measured its impacts on the environment,” Sullivan said. “The need for more data does not mean it is scientifically sound to assume there has been no damage.”

In its 2015 EIS, the Navy states, “Long-term exposure to pollutants poses potential risks to the health of marine mammals, although for the most part, the impacts are just starting to be understood.” Yet later, it delineates impacts, including ” … organ anomalies and impaired reproduction and immune function.” There are multiple other examples of such doublespeak within the Navy’s own documents.

Lastly, if more data is needed in order to understand the impacts of the Navy’s exercises on wildlife and marine life, the prudent course to take would be to not conduct exercises until the requisite data is available — if the data show there is truly no significant impact to the environment.

A Global Perspective

When we consider the debris that US military is dropping off our own shores, we must also acknowledge the massive amounts of contamination our military has wrought abroad. Mozhgan Savabieasfahani, an environmental toxicologist and winner of the 2015 Rachel Carson prize for her research on depleted uranium (DU) and heavy metal contamination, told Truthout that the global implications of US military exercises are staggering.

“Since 2001, the United States has accelerated its war contamination of the planet,” she told Truthout. “The US has spent over $3 trillion on the decimation of Iraq and Afghanistan. The number of bombs and bullets dropped on those nations alone is staggering, let alone the contamination caused by their naval exercises around the world.”

As early as 2005, it was reported that US forces were using 1.8 billion rounds of small-arms ammunition per year.

“That means that approximately a quarter of a million US bullets were being expended to kill every single US war victim in the Middle East,” Savabieasfahani said. “In 2015 alone, the United States dropped over 23,000 bombs on the Middle East, according to the Council on Foreign Relations.”

Now, in addition to the toxic debris the US military has left strewn across large swaths of the Middle East, the Navy is planning to add to global contamination by injecting unfathomable amounts of toxic contaminants into the seas surrounding the US.

When taken together, the amount of environmental damage the US military is causing around the planet on an annual basis is nearly impossible to comprehend.

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