The Environmental Protection Agency on Wednesday cleared the Navy to sink the retired aircraft carrier USS Oriskany off Pensacola Beach in May, jump-starting long-delayed plans for a program to turn old warships into artificial reefs.
The agency issued a permit for disposal of chemicals known as polychlorinated biphenyls or PCBs aboard the ship. It was the final hurdle the Navy needed to clear before returning the famed Korean and Vietnam War aircraft carrier from a Navy shipyard in Beaumont, Texas, to Pensacola.
"We've been working on this thing for four years now. This is a huge step forward for Pensacola," said retired Vice Adm. Jack Fetterman, president and CEO of the Naval Aviation Museum Foundation and a longtime advocate for the Oriskany project.
The Oriskany is the first of more than 20 ships the Navy hopes to dispose of through reefing, and the lengthy Oriskany PCB disposal permit process was a first for the Navy and the EPA.
The Oriskany will be sunk with about 700 pounds of PCBs in its electrical cable, insulation and paint. EPA officials said the PCBs will leach out slowly over the estimated 100 years it will take the carrier to rust away and should pose no danger to marine life or humans.
Fetterman said the Navy should begin towing the ship from Texas to Pensacola March 2. The target date for sinking the ship is May 15, he said.
The Oriskany was first towed to Pensacola in December 2004, only to be towed back to Texas in June to ride out the 2005 hurricane season. Hurricanes, EPA permitting problems and the death of one of the lead project scientists contributed to nearly two years of delay.
Pensacolans celebrated Wednesday's news, saying the sinking would revitalize a hurricane-battered tourism industry.
"In the long haul, you are looking at the rebirth of one of the historically successful industries of Pensacola . . . the fishing and diving industry," said Ed Schroeder, tourism director for the Pensacola Bay Area Chamber of Commerce.
More than 2,500 Oriskany veterans made plans to come to Pensacola for the first scheduled sinking in the summer of 2004. They had invited Sen. John McCain of Arizona to be the keynote speaker. McCain flew off the Oriskany before he was taken captive by North Vietnamese forces during the Vietnam War.