South Carolina to extract toxic waste from WWII aircraft carrier USS Yorktown

More toxic waste will be extracted from a World War II aircraft carrier in Charleston Harbor to prevent leakage that would imperil the commercial shipping industry and coastal ecosystems central to the South Carolina port city’s identity.

The removal of over 1.2 million gallons of petroleum and other hazards is part of an $18 million remediation effort for the USS Yorktown, which powered through tours in the Pacific Ocean and off Vietnam before the U.S. Navy donated the decommissioned ship in 1975. The waterfront attraction at Patriots Point Naval and Maritime Museum has since become one of South Carolina’s most popular tourist stops, but the increased potential for leaky tanks poses a threat to the surrounding waters.

The USS Yorktown should be known for concepts like duty and honor, not “dirty, harmful, cleanup,” Robert Boyles, director of the state’s natural resources department, said at a Tuesday news conference.

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State officials long declined to allocate funds toward mitigating the environmental hazard, even after a 2013 Patriots Point Development Authority study estimated that the USS Yorktown had amassed some 1.6 million gallons of toxic waste. The risk of pollution grew as saltwater corroded the hull of the ship, lodged offshore in the mud.

The South Carolina Office of Resilience began the removal process in 2022 using federal relief funds under an executive order signed by Republican Gov. Henry McMaster. Officials have since identified more than 400 onboard tanks that still hold bulk liquids — including 65,000 gallons of heavy fuel oil, according to Dr. Jacqueline Michel, the president of a consulting firm specializing in oil spills.

Almost nine tons of oily waste have been removed so far from nearly 50 tanks. Patriots Point Development Authority Executive Director Allison Hunt said the largest containers are as big as 32 feet deep, 28 feet long and 8 feet wide.

South Carolina Department of Natural Resources Director Robert Boyles presents a sample of toxic waste outside the USS Yorktown. (AP Photo/James Pollard)

Vacuum pumps sucked out the thick, black liquid all summer long, Hunt said. Trucks with 3,000-gallon capacities ferried the waste between the ship and 120,000-gallon tanks sitting landside. The dregs were then driven to a nearby treatment facility.

All the while, the USS Yorktown remained open for tours. Patriots Point draws some 300,000 visitors each year, including elementary school students on field trips and local Boy Scout troops on overnight stays.

“Those first days, we were a little concerned, with the number of guests that we have,” Hunt said.

Patriots Point officials believe it’s the first time an aircraft carrier of this size has been remediated. Federal law did not require that the USS Yorktown’s stewards remove the pollutants inside when it was decommissioned in 1970.

Other ships have undergone similar processes on land. But officials said they cannot dislodge the USS Yorktown from the muddy ocean floor 25 feet below the surface.

The Charleston area is the “most beautiful, prosperous, lush place in all of His Majesty’s areas,” McMaster said Tuesday, paraphrasing a colonial report to the King of England.

“Keeping this ship and this place, Patriots Point, booming for the rest of the state is our job,” McMaster said.

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