USS Arthur W. Radford

USS Arthur W. Radford (Handout photo / March 13, 2008)

With almost every regulatory hurdle cleared, planners believe they are about two weeks away from sinking a 563-foot former Navy destroyer off the coast of Maryland to create the largest artificial reef on the Eastern Seaboard.

The Arthur W. Radford, docked in Philadelphia, is nearing the end of a laborious effort to remove all salvageable and toxic material and pass inspection by federal environmental and maritime safety officials, Erik Zlokovitz, artificial reef coordinator for the Maryland Department of Natural Resources told a state fisheries advisory commission Tuesday night.

Today, marine salvage teams from Virginia-based American Marine Group are expected to remove the massive propellers, one of the final steps in creating a hulking structure that will serve as home for fish and crustaceans.

Zlokovitz told the Sportfish Advisory Commission that planners have targeted the first week in August for the sinking of the Radford.

The reef, called Del-Jersey-Land for the three states involved in the project, will be placed roughly 28 miles northeast of Ocean City Inlet, about equidistant between that point and Indian River Inlet and Cape May. The $800,000 cost of preparation, towing and sinking is being shared by the three states and the Navy. It will be the first multi-state reefing effort since the site received federal approval in 2006.

The Coast Guard and reef planners are preparing a towing plan to bring the Radford from the Philadelphia Navy Yard to the mouth of the Delaware River, where ocean-going vessels would assume control and guide the ship to its final resting place. Coast Guard picket ships would establish a safety perimeter to keep sightseers at a safe distance.

Plans call for the Radford to be sunk upright in 135 feet of water, with the top of the vessel about 60 feet from the surface.

Zlokovitz said it is expected the ship, which will be placed in an area with other sunken vessels and barges, will act as habitat for fish, which will attract fishing charters and dive boats from the three states.

But the project has its critics. The Seattle-based environmental group, Basel Action Network, continues to oppose turning warships into reefs, saying recycling rather than sinking would save taxpayers' money and ensure that toxic materials would not be released into the water.

Maryland's ambitious artificial reef program began in 2006, when the cement remains of the old Woodrow Wilson Bridge was hauled from Washington down the Potomac River to carefully selected sites in the Chesapeake Bay. Since its beginnings, the non-profit Maryland Artificial Reef Initiative has raised money from private foundations, corporations and the recreational and commercial fishing communities to build reefs in the bay and on the Atlantic Coast — nearly two dozen so far.

The latest project will use clean rubble from the removal of Simkins Dam on the Patapsco River to build a reef off Swan Point in the lower Chester River.

The Radford is MARI's biggest project to date.

The Radford was named for the first naval officer to become the chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff. It was launched in 1975 and commissioned in 1977.

The destroyer and its crew served in the Persian Gulf War. The ship made headlines in 1999, when it was involved in a collision with a Baltimore-bound Saudi container ship off the Virginia Capes. Thirteen sailors were injured, and the Radford sustained $32.7 million in damage. Its commander was later relieved of duty.

The Radford was decommissioned eight years ago.

candy.thomson@baltsun.com

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