Navy gets award for cleaning up

By SUSANNA RAY

Herald Writer

OLYMPIA — After being hammered in recent years by environmentalists and state officials, Puget Sound Navy bases got a Hammer Award from the vice president Wednesday for reducing oil spills and hazardous waste while saving taxpayers $43 million over the past 10 years.

The award is given out by the National Partnership for Reinventing Government, a program Al Gore created in 1994 after news reports of widespread government waste, including a $400 hammer.

The award given Wednesday was a $6 hammer mounted diagonally in an aluminum box frame with a ribbon adorning the handle and a small square note in the corner signed by Gore, reading: "Thanks for building a government that works better and costs less!"

The award may be cheap, but it’s valuable, said Susan Blumenthal, who gave the award on Gore’s behalf to officials with Navy Region Northwest and the state Department of Ecology.

They were honored mostly for their combined efforts in reducing the volume of hazardous waste disposed over the past 10 years by 62 percent and the volume of extremely hazardous waste disposed by 93 percent. Sailors consolidated their work and reduced the number of products such as solvents and acid used to coat parts or strip paint off ships.

They were also recognized for more recent efforts to reduce oil spills, which have dropped significantly since 1998.

Rear Adm. Vinson Smith, the new commander of Navy Region Northwest, accepted the award on behalf of the region’s five bases, including Naval Station Everett and Whidbey Island Naval Air Station.

Smith’s predecessor, Rear Adm. Bill Center, worked hard to halt the trend after numerous spills from Navy ships in 1997 and 1998 brought the attention and wrath of state lawmakers and Gov. Gary Locke. The efforts appeared to have paid off this year.

In 1999, Puget Sound-area bases spilled 2,621 gallons of oil in 45 incidents. That included about 1,000 gallons spilled into Possession Sound from the USS Abraham Lincoln.

This year, however, that number plummeted to 127 gallons in 20 incidents. Five of those were from Everett-based ships, totaling 62 gallons into Possession Sound, said Bob Campagna, a civilian who oversees environmental issues for Navy Region Northwest. There have been no spills this year at the Whidbey base.

"This year has been phenomenal," Campagna said. Part of it is chance, he said, adding that the record would be a tough act to follow, but he also credited a Navywide focus on oil-spill prevention and said sailors are paying more attention.

The Navy’s relationship with the state has improved, too. State regulators are now allowed aboard ships after oil spills, said Curt Hart, a spokesman for the Department of Ecology. The Navy is still exempt from state fines for spills, he said, but sailors have done a restoration project for every oil spill that’s more than about 50 gallons.

That includes two in Snohomish County last year.

A crew from the Lincoln cleaned up a section of Jim Creek, and sailors from the USS David R. Ray planted more than 300 trees along a tributary of Quilceda Creek.

Smith said the Navy has traditionally been focused on its mission of forward deployment, with environmental concerns a low priority, but "over the decades we have learned that we’re also a part of the community. We have a responsibility to protect the environment," he told the group of Navy and state government officials gathered for the ceremony, "and I want you to know that our commitment is genuine."

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