Across Port Townsend Bay, a 4.5 mile long island is separated from the mainland by a two-lane bridge. On that island is the West Coast’s most strategic ammunition depot, a loading and unloading site for weapons of extraordinary power. Looking south from the red brick buildings of Port Townsend’s historic waterfront, the only tip-off to Indian Island’s role is a big blue crane.
Glen Milner wants to know the full extent of the harm that could be wrought if, say, that crane dropped a load of the Tomahawk cruise missiles on the deck of a warship. The U.S. Department of the Navy, though, has been trying to avoid answering his questions. So last September Milner filed suit against the Navy, seeking a judge’s order to get the military’s estimates of the extent of the potential damage wrought by such an accident.
Milner, a Lake Forest Park peace activist, cut his teeth on military transparency after the 1986 derailment of a train laden with explosive rockets bound for Bangor submarine base. One year later, Milner’s Freedom of Information Act requests revealed that rocket motors with the explosive power of over 400 pounds of TNT were aboard.
“The media was told there was nothing explosive on board the train, even though the box cars said ‘Class A Explosives’ on them.” The Navy had nearly gotten away with a lie, he recalls. “I realized that time that nobody was watching this stuff at all.”
Milner’s suit stems from a classic experience with the runaround: a 2003 request under the Freedom of Information Act was redirected to numerous branches of the Navy, which all responded in various and separate ways that no, for law enforcement and public-safety purposes, these documents would not be released. The year after, he filed the same request with a Naval ordnance office; that too was denied.
Contrast the Navy’s tight-lipped refusals, says Milner, with their disclosure about a site of greater notoriety: the Bangor submarine base in Kitsap County, where Trident nuclear submarines are armed with as many as 192 nuclear warheads each.
“This inconsistency,” he states in his suit’s papers, “elicits suspicion that [near Indian Island] members of the public live and conduct their affairs” within the destructive breadth of an accidental explosion.
Suspicions were refreshed among Port Townsend locals last year when the Navy announced that, starting this year, the ammunitions depot would begin playing host to two of Bangor’s Trident submarines — retooled to carry cruise missiles and Special Operations personnel.
Milner has what might be termed a ballpark estimate, gleaned from a 1996 Navy document putting the explosive potential of the ammunition in transit at Indian Island at three million pounds of TNT — enough, according to the Navy’s own calculations, to destroy property 1.36 miles from ground zero.
An explosion like that, says Milner, “would knock all your windows out of your house, knock your door down, but you would survive.”
Port Townsend is just a bit further from the ammunitions depot than the 1.36 mile boundary. And it’s unclear whether, with the docking of Trident subs, the explosive potential at the dock has increased.
The Navy appears to have a clean safety record at the weapons depot. In public comments printed in the Port Townsend Leader, Navy brass have noted that weapons and their ignition systems are often handled separately. A public-affairs spokesperson did not return calls seeking comment.
If an accident did happen, the environmental consequences to Port Townsend Bay would be severe. Milner notes that the Navy must designate a site to scuttle a vessel should a fire break out on board; it would be away from the island’s dock, which only means one thing: it’s toward Port Townsend’s waterfront. Depleted uranium, from which some of the depot’s 20mm rounds are made, could pollute the waters.
A self-described pacifist, Milner says he isn’t trying to change the world with his attempts to make the Navy more transparent. “It’s not my choice to scare people away… I don’t think that will change much,” he says. “But I do think that people need to know what kind of hazards there are in their community.”
By ADAM HYLA, Editor