Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Army mulls high-speed water transports

Army mulls high-speed water transports

By Audrey McAvoy, The Associated Press
Mideast edition, Thursday, February 11, 2010

HONOLULU — The Army said Monday it’s considering purchasing up to a dozen high-speed vessels similar to the one used by the now-defunct Hawaii Superferry interisland ferry service.

Environmentalists opposed the Hawaii Superferry, alleging the high-speed ships used to operate the state’s first interisland car and passenger service would strike whales and spread invasive species. Activists say the Army’s version of the vessel raises the same issues.

“Some of the same concerns exist — obviously we’re talking about the same type of technology,” said Robert Harris, director of the Sierra Club’s Hawaii chapter. “So just as we were pushing the Superferry to look at those risks, I think we’d be looking to the military to look at them as well.”

In addition to Pearl Harbor, bases in Virginia, San Diego, Seattle-Tacoma, Wash., and Guam also are under consideration for the ships. The Army didn’t say how many vessels were being suggested for each location, only that it is proposing to have up to three ships at a spot and up to 12 overall.

The Army said it’s seeking public input for an environmental impact statement on its proposal.

The ships are designed to “support the rapid transport of military troops and equipment in the U.S. and abroad,” an Army statement said.

Not every proposed location will host the vessels, and other sites could still be considered, the Army said, adding it would decide after the environmental study.

The ships, built by Austal USA in Mobile, Ala., can reach speeds of up to 35 to 45 knots.

Both the Army and Superferry versions are diesel-fueled aluminum catamarans that use water jet propulsion instead of propellers.

The military’s version has a helicopter flight deck and machine gun stations. It’s also about 13 feet shorter and wider than its civilian counterpart.

Harris said there’s a risk the high-speed vessels could strike whales, noting the state is host to the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary where whales migrate to every winter to breed and calve.

“The concern when you’re traveling at that high a speed is that the whale or the boat is not going to have an opportunity to stop, move or get out of the way,” Harris said.

The ships may become a conduit for invasive species if they sneak aboard vehicles the vessels are transporting from island to island.

“Unless you have a vigorous system set up for inspecting the vehicles and monitoring them, you’ve created a new pathway for invasive species to spread,” Harris said.

Invasive species are among the biggest threats to the environment in Hawaii, where they compete for habitat with native, endangered species.

Hawaii is home to more than 300 endangered species — more than any other state.

The Hawaii Superferry began regularly scheduled high-speed interisland service in December 2007. But it stopped operating and declared bankruptcy in early 2009 after the state Supreme Court ruled an environmental impact statement needed to be conducted for it to operate.

The company had hoped to stay in business while the state completed the environmental study, but the court said the study had to be completed first.

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