Prince William SOUNDKEEPER®

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PWSK Comment on Navy War Games

08 Dec 2016 7:30 AM | Kate McLaughlin (Administrator)

Below is a letter submitted to Lieutenant General Kennneth S. Wilsbach, USAF Commander Alaska Command in regards to Operation Northern Edge and the proposed activities slated for spring of 2017 in the N. Gulf of AK.

Dear Lt. General Wilsbach;

Prince William Soundkeeper is a citizen advocacy organization dedicated to preserving and protecting the water quality and environment of Prince William Sound on behalf of all its users.  As such we must address the issues and impacts of Operation Northern Edge as it effects the North Gulf of Alaska and by extension Prince William Sound.

In your letter to the Cordova City Council this past October it was stated that, “environmental protection is an integral component of preparations for NE17”.  You further stated that the US Navy has evaluated it activities in the 2013 Environmental Impact Study, and in the 2016 Gulf of Alaska Final Supplemental EIS.  These statements are not sufficient justification for holding the exercises as proposed, nor are they completely transparent or accurate, and do little to assure or persuade that the impacts of the Northern Edge exercises will not harm human health and the water quality that our precious marine resources and ecosystem depend upon. Supporting our concerns, the National Marine Fisheries Service disagrees with the Navy’s finding of “no significant impact” to fish and marine mammals.  

The North Gulf of Alaska is one the most productive and relatively pristine fisheries and marine ecosystems remaining in the world.  Our world class fisheries not only drives and sustains a good portion of the economy of the Pacific Northwest, but also feeds a large portion of the world. 

The following is a summary of how PWSK believes that the assertions regarding the impacts of Operation Northern Edge are inadequate, incomplete, and misleading. 

Holding the Northern Edge exercises in May, during the peak of the spring migration would clearly have an impact on the marine wildlife already present, and those populations moving into the North Gulf of Alaska.  In the past exercises have been held during the winter months.  A compelling argument for holding them in the spring has not been made by the Navy.  Indeed numerous Federal Courts have stated that the location and timing can be altered.  From 1975- 2003 the trainings happened in the winter.  The Navy itself has stated that the trainings can be held later in the year, and their preferred alternative is for the training to take place between April-Oct. so why not hold them later in the year?  12 nautical miles is virtually on our very doorstep.  Water is not stationary and the deep, strong currents of the north Pacific pour themselves into Prince William Sound.

There will be significant impact to fish (and by extension, human health) through various sources such as low frequency sonar, repeated explosions in the water column, and the use of severely toxic materials.

It is a fact that the use of low-frequency sonar has a significant detrimental effect on marine mammals.  How the use of sonar affects fish is not known.  However, even when considering the timing and implementation of the exercises, it is the means and materials used that is even more concerning than just the use of sonar and bombing.

The expended materials that are utilized and never recovered contain a host of heavy metals such as lithium, lead, mercury and depleted uranium.  These materials are known to be severely toxic at very low concentrations and are extremely persistent in the environment. Research on the effects of depleted uranium in marine environments has already established that exposure to environmentally relevant concentrations of uranium has negative impacts on fish embryogenesis and on fish reproduction.  Other sources of the hazardous materials released by the Navy include, according to its own EIS, propellant from aircraft, ships and ordnance, along with toxic components of fuel oils including aromatic hydrocarbons such as benzene, toluene, xylene, and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons such as naphthalene, acenaphthene and fluoranthene. In fact very little is known about the extent of disruption and damage caused in organisms exposed to these toxins.  The Navy’s own Final Environmental Impact Study states, “little is known about the very important issues of nonmorality damage in the short and long-term, and nothing is known about effect on behavior of fish.”

These toxins are cumulative and bio-persistent, meaning that they are taken up and concentrated in the marine life that are exposed to them. The impacts to human health, in particular children, leading to neurodevelopment disabilities and other serious conditions, cannot be overstated.  Can Alaska and the Nation afford to contaminate our salmon, crab, halibut, cod and pollock fisheries?  Should our public health and ecosystem be sacrificed in order to hold war games in ways that have not proven to be necessary?  Combined with the devastating effects of warming waters in the Gulf of Alaska, further stressors such as those described here could have the potential to be the straw that broke the camel’s back when considering the health and productivity of the Gulf of Alaska’s ecosystem.

As American citizens, as veterans, and family members of veterans, we certainly appreciate all that the armed forces have done, and are doing to keep our shores safe from threats.  However, we cannot ignore the intrinsic threat to our health and livelihoods that the North Edge exercises proposes, and by which past military activities throughout our Nation have proven, to have caused.  These are immediate and long-term negative impacts that will surely affect the citizens of our Nation.  On behalf of our constituency and the resource users of the Gulf of Alaska and Prince William Sound we ask that the military examine its needs closely and weigh them against the risks towards human health and the ecosystem we all need for a sustainable future.  Please consider moving the bulk of the activities to October, reducing the amount and types of sonar and munitions used, and to conduct in depth research into the impacts of the exercises on marine resources and water quality.  We ask the Navy and the Alaska Command to deeply consider how their activities are jeopardizing the economy, health and wellbeing of the citizens that they are sworn to protect.


Kate McLaughlin, President & Executive Director

cc:  The Honorable Mayor Clay Koplin and the City of Cordova Council Members

Prince William Soundkeeper, PO Box 1368, Cordova, Alaska, 99574  tel: 907-424-5701  a 501c(3) non-profit organization.
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