Proposed explosive shock trials make waves
by John Surratt
GulfLive.com - The Mississippi Press
19th April 2004
A proposal by the U.S. Navy that it may conduct shock trials 120 nautical miles from Pascagoula on the amphibious dock ship San Antonio has raised concerns among environmentalists about safety of aquatic life that may be in the test area in the Gulf of Mexico.
The ship, which is also known as LPD 17, is being built at Northrop Grumman Ship Systems' Avondale Shipyard in New Orleans. The test is scheduled for sometime in 2006 or 2007.
Besides Pascagoula, the Navy is considering two other sites: Norfolk, Virginia, and the Jacksonsville/Atlantic Beach, Florida area. A public hearing on the proposed Pascagoula site is set for 6 p.m. Thursday at the Old Place on Oak Street in Gautier.
The shock trials are being conducted by the Navy's Naval Sea Systems Command, which is responsible for the development, acquisition, modernization and maintenance of the Navy's ships.
Bob Nelson, environmental public affairs officer for Sea Systems' Regional office, Jacksonville, Florida, said the trials involve subjecting a ship to shock waves caused by explosions to evaluate the effectiveness of the ship's hull and its vulnerability.
Nelson said the Navy recently completed a successful shock trial of the Aegis destroyer Winston Churchill off the coast of Mayport, Florida.
The shock trials, he said, are conducted before any ship can roll out into the Navy arsenal, "before it actually becomes a ship or a submarine."
"It's a test that's conducted for a couple of reasons," he said. "One is to show the effectiveness of the hull, which will in turn ensure the safety of the sailors who are on the ship. It will also be able to show the overall performance of the ship. The ship will be afloat during the tests."
Nelson said the Navy will use four 10,000-pound explosive charges to provide the waves for the week-long test.
The charges will be detonated under water and away from the ship in a way that will simulate as realistically as possible conditions that the San Antonio would experience during combat.
Because of the distance from shore, Nelson said, he did not believe the explosions would be heard by local residents.
The public hearing Thursday is part of the requirements under the 1969 federal National Environmental Policy Act, which requires agencies to evaluate the impact of major activities that may harm the environment.
Public comments, either during the hearing or in writing for a specified period after the hearing, are required as part of the process.
Nelson said the Navy takes extreme precautions before and during the tests to protect marine life as much as possible.
He said the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration's National Marine Fisheries Service is working with the Navy on the trials plans.
"NOAA does aerial spotting before detonation to ensure no marine mammals are in the area and we try to do it in an area where there may be a small marine mammal population," he said. "We try to do it during a time of year to exclude breeding and migration periods. There are lot of measures in place."
A site in the Gulf of Mexico south of Pascagoula was also considered as a possible site for the Churchill shock tests, according to information from the Federal Register.
According to an application to take and import marine mammals in connection the Churchill test, which was filed by NOAA with the Environmental Protection Agency, 29 species of marine mammals may live in the Gulf of Pascagoula, including Bride's whale, sperm whales, dwarf and pygmy sperm whales, four species of beaked whales and 14 species of dolphins and porpoises.
Paula Vassey, a local environmentalist in Gautier, said she was glad that the Navy and National Marine Fisheries officials are having a public comment meeting to give local citizens a chance to voice their concerns.
"Our oceans are having problems, according to the PEW Ocean Report and the seafood industry along the coast over the years had problems, some caused by environmental issues," she said.
"We owe it to the people to protect our natural resources whenever possible and to use the best available technology to protect our resources. I would hope all of the governmental agencies will work toward sustainable fisheries for the future."
Becky Gillette, conservation chairman and vice chairman of the Mississippi Sierra Club, called the tests "very violent," but added, "it's localized and they make an attempt to drive out any big mammals (before the tests).” She said despite those efforts, "I've been told there are dead fish for miles."
Gillette said she is also concerned about the impact on of the tests on submerged reefs or grass beds in the area.
"Two other sites are being considered for this and I hate to sound selfish, but I wish they would have it done somewhere else," she said.
"We have to keep in mind that they have to do these tests to make sure the ships can survive the conditions they encounter, so we have to keep that in mind. But I wish they would do the testing in a dead zone off the Texas/Louisiana coast, where there is no marine life."
She said it will be a difficult problem to balance the needs of the Navy against protecting the marine life in the area should the Navy decide to use the Gulf of Mexico.
"I hope people in the community will come to the meeting Thursday and learn what this is all about," she said.