|Shore mounted guns at Dahlgren NSWC
For more than a century, the U.S. Navy has been using the lower Potomac River as a firing range to test its guns and munitions. In recent decades, it’s tried out new weapons over the water, like lasers and electromagnetic railguns.
Since the first booming artillery round soared 14 miles downriver in 1918, residents on both sides of the Potomac have learned to live with the intermittent blasts from the Naval Surface Warfare Center, Dahlgren Division, in King George County, VA. Pleasure boaters and watermen alike also learned to work around the open water testing, when a stretch of river south of the U.S. 301 bridge is closed to river traffic.
That unquestioning acceptance has changed lately, though. It began with a bureaucratic notice in the Federal Register in December seeking public comment on a proposed expansion of the middle “danger zone” that extends about 20 miles downriver from Dahlgren. The notice said the expansion was for “ongoing infrared sensor testing for detection of airborne chemical or biological agent simulants, directed energy testing, and for operating manned or unmanned watercraft.”
Boaters who spotted the notice reacted with dismay. They complained that the proposed danger zone expansion would force vessels trying to get up or down river into such shallow water along the Maryland shore that they would risk running aground.
“I have been boating on the Eastern seaboard for over 40 years,” wrote James Khoury, vice commodore of the Prince William Yacht Club. “I have never come across a mandate that deliberately puts the safety of boaters in both the recreational and commercial boating industry in jeopardy.”
The notice also stirred concerns among oyster farmers and watermen, especially after Potomac Riverkeeper Dean Naujoks began raising questions about how the Navy’s gunnery exercises and chemical/biological tests may affect fish and shellfish.
In late January, the Potomac Riverkeeper Network and Natural Resources Defense Council sent the secretary of the Navy two letters accusing the service of violating federal environmental laws and threatening to sue.
Drawing on information in a 2013 environmental impact statement, the groups said the Navy annually fires about 4,700 large-caliber projectiles from Dahlgren and sets off more than 200 explosions in the river. It also releases substances over the water 70 times a year on average to simulate chemical or biological attacks, they said. Among the listed substances was a gasoline additive and a paint stripper.
They accused the Navy of failing to get a required discharge permit or a presidential exemption from the Clean Water Act for the projectiles and substances it puts in the water. They also said the service failed to consult with the National Marine Fisheries Service about whether its weapons and chemical testing harm critical habitat for endangered Atlantic sturgeon.
“We’re not trying to stop the activity. We’re just saying you should have permits and limits on what you’re putting in the river,” Naujoks said. “I think the Navy owes some type of explanation and [should] convey what this expanded bombing range means for the river and river users.”
A deputy assistant Navy secretary replied in writing to the groups that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and Virginia and Maryland regulators agreed in 2012 that testing at Dahlgren didn’t require a discharge permit or presidential authorization. Likewise, he said it got the fisheries’ service agreement that while its tests could have an impact on sturgeon, the fish were unlikely to be harmed.
Jennifer Erickson, a Dahlgren spokeswoman, said in an emailed response to written questions that 74% of the projectiles fired downriver are inert and that most of the live ordnance is fused to explode above the water. Rounds that don’t detonate bury themselves in the river bottom, she said.
Erickson also said that the “small quantities” of chemical simulants released “would undergo immediate dilution.” Previous assessments by the Navy concluded such tests produced “no observable environmental effects,” she said.
Despite the Navy’s assurances that spent shells are buried in the bottom, commercial fishermen say they’ve recovered them periodically in their nets and have seen projectiles detonate after hitting the water.
Dahlgren is pretty well known around here. On clear days, if you hear thunder, you just write it off as the boys at Dahlgren having their fun even though it's 33 miles away as the crow flies.