Wasteful and Toxic
Wasteful and Toxic
The military had always been an environmental disaster. Only luck has prevented even more environmental catastrophes from the military. Our boat was no exception. We were too close to it to see how outrageous it was.
Navy ships were all still dumping all their raw sewage over the side, whether in port or at sea, in 1970. The submarine tender in San Diego was the first ship that I knew of that actually made a connection to the shore-based sewer system. The standard Navy shipboard plumbing system on a surface ship consisted of a set of pumps to provide sea water for flushing all toilets and urinals, and a pipe to dump the effluence over the side of the ship. It was even done above the water line, for all the world to see.
Have you ever thought about flushing the toilet in a submarine? Where does it go? Well, it goes to a holding tank, and every day or so the holding tank must be emptied by using compressed air to force the raw sewage out to sea. There was never any treatment to the sewage.
Garbage was a problem, of course, but we hid the problem on a submarine. There were famous tales from World War II in which Tokyo Rose or one of her clones was finding the garbage from American submarines, and was finding out the names of the sailors and the contents of their letters from home. In addition, they were finding out things that the U.S. Navy did not want the Japanese to know. So submarine garbage has been weighted to sink, ever since then. It's all out there on the bottom of the ocean.
In port, we used the dumpster at the end of the pier. We did not ask where the garbage went. The only exception to this occurred in Lisbon, Portugal, where we were told to just throw our garbage over the side, into the Tagus River, on the ebb tide. Sure enough, that is what everyone else in the harbor was doing, so we did the same, right there within view of downtown Lisbon.
Fuel was another problem. A conventional submarine carried more than 100,000 gallons of diesel fuel. There was no room for it inside the pressure hull, so it was carried outside, in some non-pressurized tanks. The tanks had connections that allowed sea water into the bottom of the tank, which forced the fuel out the top of the tank and into the engine room.
When we took on fuel, the sea water in the fuel tanks had to go somewhere, so it went back to sea. It was not pure sea water by this time, but it left very little of a slick on the water. First the water went through a separator that was built into the boat, in the form of the fuel oil expansion tank. Then it went through an additional separator that was temporarily placed alongside the boat. This was a floating contraption called a donut, because it was surrounded by a flotation chamber that was shaped like a torus. We pumped the water from our fuel tanks into the donut. It fell into the open top of the vertical cylinder. There was a tub at the bottom to catch most of the residue that fell out of the cylinder. The excess water flowed out below the water line, into the harbor. Any floating residue was trapped in the donut. Every once in a while the donut was taken away and the floating scum was pumped out. It was better than nothing, but it never felt good to me, especially when I was supervising the onloading of a hundred thousand gallons of fuel. And, if they thought no one was looking, they frequently tried to fuel without the donut.
The worst environmental risk that I observed while I was in the Navy was not on an operational submarine, but on a research vehicle that the Navy did away with in the mid-1970s. This vehicle, as a safety feature, had a 25-pound reservoir of mercury in a gadget like a plumbing trap, such as under your kitchen sink. It was designed to just discharge to sea in case of emergency. This feature had existed for many years, and no mercury had been observed to have been lost. I was quite relieved to learn about the retirement of that particular vehicle. None of the other such vehicles carried any mercury.
There have been many improvements since I left the Navy on May 23, 1973 (a date that is still imprinted in my memory.) There was a program just starting at that time to redesign all ships so that they could discharge their sewage into the sewage system ashore whenever they were in port. I am also certain that the military are loathe to acknowledge the jurisdiction of the EPA, and I wonder just how well things are done today.