A spring run of migrating salmon was the only thing behind the temporary halt of construction on a $715 million explosives handling wharf at the Bangor Nuclear Submarine Base. The Endangered Species Act, Clean Water Act and state water quality criteria prohibit in-water construction from mid-February to mid-July to protect spawning fish populations.
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It’s an ironic twist, say critics. The new wharf, the size of six football fields, could ultimately cause irreparable harm to salmon migration. A National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) lawsuit was filed against the wharf last June by the Ground Zero Center for Nonviolent Action; Glen Milner, a researcher and activist with the center; and Washington Physicians for Social Responsibility.
Until recently, the case was on hold after plaintiffs appealed a gag order imposed by the court last November at the Navy’s request. The gag order sealed a number of records the Navy released after the lawsuit began and forbid plaintiffs to provide copies of the records or discuss them inside or outside the court.
It wasn't until after court proceedings had already begun in June that the Navy released documents showing that the Department of Defense Explosive Safety Board had refused to grant a permit for the new wharf because of its proximity to an existing wharf. The safety board wouldn’t endorse the decision unless the Navy could prove an explosion at one wouldn’t cause an explosion at the other. The Navy, when reached, refused to comment about ongoing litigation.
“At that point the Navy basically stopped discussion and granted themselves an exception to the rule,” said Milner, lawsuit plaintiff. He says the Navy chose a rare route for project approval, called the Secretary of the Navy Explosives Safety Certification, that allowed the Secretary of Navy to sign a statement saying it would assume responsibility for all risks.
“But it doesn’t mean that it’s safe," Milner warns. "It’s actually a fairly dangerous operation.” Milner has a long history of monitoring Naval activities in Puget Sound. In 1986, he discovered that rail cars carrying submarine missile rocket motors involved in a derailment contained large amounts of high explosives, contrary to Navy statements. In 2011, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 8 to 1 in his favor in Milner v. Department of the Navy, a case involving explosives handling issues at an ammunition depot near Indian Island, across the bay from Port Townsend.
The wharf, says Milner, would double the amount of explosives handled in Hood Canal. In total, the structure would handle 3.7 million pounds of TNT in the form of missile rocket propellant.
This week the 9th Circuit court ruled that their first responsibility was to resolve issues raised by the suit. The case is moving forward, gag order intact. The gag order, the court said, will be ruled on at a later date. Postponing the decision on the gag order is as good as keeping it. Any decisions coming down the pike after the lawsuit won't do much for the safety of the explosives wharf.