Earlier this year, the Navy scraped the hull of the U.S.S. Independence to prepare it for dismantlement. That likely released heavy metals into the waters of Puget Sound, which is bad for salmon and orcas. The Navy didn’t get a permit for the work, so environmental groups sued this week.
But in Bremerton? It's going to take more than that to shake this town's love of the Navy.
Every day around lunch time, Kenny Wayne Gunner stands on 1st Street in Bremerton and plays his electric guitar. On this early afternoon, he plays one of his specialties: a Hendrix-style version of the Star Spangled Banner.
Navy sailors walk by, occasionally dropping money into Gunner's open guitar case. “I wouldn’t be able to be out here playing my guitar on the street corner if it wasn’t for the Navy. God bless the Navy," he says, adding, "and thank you for your service” as sailors walk by in their blue fatigues known locally as "blueberries."
It’s not just Gunner the guitarist who’s grateful for the Navy’s presence here.
Bremerton Mayor Patty Lent feels grateful when a new aircraft carrier comes to town. The Navy picks her up in a helicopter and flies her onto the deck of the ship. From there, she gets to ride the ship through Rich Passage and into Bremerton.
“It’s pretty exhilarating," says Lent, whose father and grandfather were both in the Navy. "I’m privileged as a mayor to do that.”
Lent appreciates how much the Navy gives to this town. She keeps that in mind when considering the Navy's action, which so upset environmental groups they felt compelled to sue.
At issue was the Navy's scraping of the ship's hull below the waterline so that it wouldn’t carry harmful barnacles and snails to Texas. That's where the decommissioned ship would eventually be cut to pieces.
So the scraping has an ecological purpose. But the Environmental Protection Agency still wants to keep tabs on scraping like that. Because when divers scrape off the growth, paint comes off and gets into the water. Copper from the paint confuses salmon, robbing them of their sense of smell. This prevents them from finding their spawning ground or recognizing predators. Such befuddled fish get eaten before reproducing.
Lent says she can’t support what the Navy did. As mayor, she can't encourage anyone to skirt the rules, she says. Still, she says she understands why the Navy acted that way: It had a tight deadline to move the ship. “That’s when it was going to be moved, and they had to make sure it was ready to go,” she says.
Lent says she would have loved to help broker an agreement with the environmental groups. She has worked with them, as well as with the Suquamish Tribe, another party to the suit.
She blames the lawsuit on miscommunication. The Navy chain of command is complex in Bremerton. You have to know who to call. “I think we could do it collaboratively without lawsuits.”
In a statement, the Navy says it performed the hull cleaning in an environmentally sound manner, consistent with the Navy’s longstanding commitment to the health of Puget Sound.
Jack Stanfill takes a more skeptical view. “I knew it was BS,” he says of the Navy's response so far.
Stanfill lives in Bremerton, and he was once Navy, too. After his discharge, he worked in the shipyard. There he developed a distrust of the Navy, which he says is a different world, once you get inside the shipyard gates.
He says back in the 1980s, the Navy used to let asbestos, lead and PCBs get into the water. But that stopped, he says, because a lawsuit forced the Navy to start cleaning up properly, putting its debris in barrels. Parts of the ship being scraped above the waterline were encapsulated. Work below the waterline meant hauling the boat into drydock.
For a while, he says the Navy did a great job.
“I was shocked, disappointed and angered when I found out that these yahoos are out there doing their own thing and to hell with the public, and to hell with the environment,” he says.
For Stanfill, it was like the 1980s all over again.
Katelyn Kinn tries to channel the frustration of her organization's many members like Jack Stanfill into meaningful legal victories.
Kinn used to wait tables in Port Orchard, a small town just across the inlet from Bremerton's shipyard, so she understands the area's patriotism and respect for the Navy. But as a lawyer with the Seattle-based Puget Soundkeeper Alliance, she says she's expanded her sense of patriotism to include protecting Puget Sound.
On the deck of the ferry back to Seattle, Kinn points at where the hull scraping of the U.S.S. Independence happened. The ship is gone now. The mayor of Bremerton is inclined to focus on the future, developing a better checklist so the Navy doesn't forget about getting the proper permit next time.
Kinn isn't ready to let this one go. She says it’s up to groups like hers to file lawsuits when other government agencies are unable or unwilling to hold the Navy accountable.
“The Navy is a major player here," she says. "The Navy is largely responsible for the historic pollution in this waterway. That’s one of the reasons I think they need to be taking the lead in its recovery and in its restoration.”
The ferry plows eastward, away from Bremerton and its Navy shipyard, across Puget Sound to Seattle. The journey serves as a reminder. Ultimately, this issue is bigger than Bremerton and its relationship with the Navy. This water is part of Puget Sound.