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USS Arthur W Radford placed as artificial reef

PHILADELPHIA — Scrap by massive, metallic scrap, the pieces are being hauled away, leaving only the spine of a skeleton ship that served the U.S. Navy for 26 years.

But her old, gray bones will soon begin a new life below the surface.

The USS Arthur W. Radford, a 563-foot destroyer that was last deployed for Operation Enduring Freedom, is set to become the longest vessel ever reefed in the Atlantic Ocean when it is sunk this month at a site 28.5 nautical miles southeast of Cape May Point.

The reefing of the ship, currently docked at the Philadelphia Naval Shipyard, is expected to create an explosive habitat for fish and marine life for anglers and an underwater playground for divers eager for discovery.

And the state says the ship will be safe harbor for all she benefits.

“It will more or less create an underwater food chain where marine life will increase exponentially,” said Hugh Carberry, artificial reef coordinator for the state Division of Fish and Wildlife.

“It’s going to be a the perfect dive, too, because it’s actually going to be reefed at a fairly shallow area and the game plan is to sink this vessel on its keel.”

The Radford’s final home will be the Deljerseyland Reef, a site designated and permitted in 2006 by New Jersey, Delaware and Maryland because of its equidistance from Cape May, Indian River Inlet, Del. and Ocean City, Md.

Bill Figley, the now-retired reef coordinator in New Jersey, and Jeff Tinsman, administrator of the Delaware Reef Program, conceived the joint initiative when learning of the Navy’s intent to start reefing surplus vessels in 2006. Both had set their sites on the Radford. When the Navy made her available in 2008, Tinsman said, they “hit the ground running” with their application.

“We’re in the business of creating fish habitats that will, in and of itself, benefit the local economies of all three states,” Tinsman said. “It helps when you don’t have three different states in one concentrated area applying for multiple sites.”

Most difficult to fathom is the relatively low cost and redirected cash layout for the cleaning, scuttling and towing of the project.

The lowest bid of $800,000 was made by American Marine Group out of Norfolk, Va. The Navy contributed a $200,000 share for the cost of reefing the ship. New Jersey’s $200,000 ante came entirely from a donation by the Ann E. Clark Foundation. The equal shares from Delaware and Maryland came from Wallop-Breaux Sports Fish Restoration Act funds — excise taxes made on fishing equipment and motor boat fuel.

Tim Mullane, project manager of American Marine Group said he is unsure his company will actually make money on the project after all of the salvageable metal is recycled and overhead is cleared. Since the dismantling of the ship started in June, AMG has had anywhere from 40 to 60 crew members working per day. While the ship is slated to be sunk late next month, there’s always the chance the project could be extended if state or federal safety criteria aren’t met.

Yet Mullane says the allure of sinking of what he feels will be the “greatest artificial reef in the Atlantic” was too much for AMG to pass up.

“As far as cleanliness and construction, this is the best ship we’ve ever had,” Mullane said. “It doesn’t have any contaminants, because it’s a newer ship. It’s going to make for a tremendous reef.”

Getting the ship reef-ready is a laborious, detailed process. The mast is removed. All doors are unhinged. Miles of cables, wires and duct work are extracted, as are tons of copper pipe. All equipment is taken away. Openings are made for technical divers to navigate through the nooks and crannies. Yet, even a protrusion as small as a coat hook must be removed to prevent diver injury.

Mullane said the pursuit of cleanliness and safety is top priority before sinking the ship. Because the Radford was commissioned in 1977, after polychlorinated biphenyls were eliminated as insulators, she has less likelihood for toxic chemicals. No asbestos has been found to date. PCB was found on only one piece of wire.

Cindy Zipf, executive director of the Highlands-based Clean Ocean Action, said the water-protecting organization is in favor of artificial reefs that create long-term, healthy habitats for marine line as long as the reefs have been “certified clean with environmentally protective protocols.”

“Ships such as the USS Radford will provide long-lasting massive structure for marine life to hide and thrive,” Zipf said.

The reefing of the Radford is expected to create upwelling as ocean currents push against the vessel, directing the nutrient-rich waters of the bottom closer to the surface, along with blooms of plankton for smaller bait fish to feed on. Carberry said those fish can attract larger, open-water species like blue-fin tune and mako sharks.

New Jersey’s artificial reef program began in 1984 to bolster fading fish populations. In addition to ships, tankers, tug boats and cement blocks have all been deposited in the deep. Controversy emerged last year when at least four decommissioned subway cars sunk as reefs collapsed after just a few months under submersion.

Yet, a 2004 Reef Productivity study by New Jersey’s Division of Fish and Wildlife found that reefs support more than 800 times more marine life than on a sandy sea floor. It also states that one out of every five fish caught in New Jersey’s saltwaters is captured off a reef site.

Dick Herb, a member of the New Jersey Marine Fish Council who runs the Escapade charter boat out of Avalon, said artificial reefs are desired by state anglers.

“The majority of our ocean bottom is just sand and it attracts absolutely nothing,” Herb said. “You need something to hold those fish, somewhere they can grow and thrive. It also should be a place where the average Joe Boater can find, not just commercial fishermen.”

“Joe Diver” also stands to benefit. Tinsman said that the ship will rest in 135 feet of water, with much of the ship easily seen and searched in more moderate, 70-100 foot depths.

Glenn Arthur, chairman of the New Jersey Council of Diving Clubs, predicted the Radford, will be the “premiere” dive site for New Jersey, Delaware and Maryland.

“I think this will be a boom for the industry diving,” Arthur said. “We hoping that this will bring more diving business down there and it will get more dive operators out of Cape May.”

The USS Arthur W. Radford completed 10 deployments before being decommissioned in 2003. She took part in the Navy’s bombardment of Beirut next to the USS New Jersey in the early 1980s. She served in the first Gulf War of the early 1990s.

In 1997, she received the first shipboard installation of the Navy’s Advanced Enclosed Mast/Sensor System. The 9,200-ton destroyer was out of action for seven months after colliding with the Saudi Riyadh, a 30,000-ton container ship, as it approached the Chesapeake Bay in February, 1999.

Chris Chiusano, who sailed in the Radford for her final two years, said there was a sadness seeing the ship torn apart during a visit last week. But he was happy that she’ll still serve below the surface.

“I love that she’s being reefed,” said Chiusano, of Middletown. Ct. “It’s much better than seeing her turned into razor blades or being sold to another country. Now people can go down to see her. After all she went through in her career, she deserves this.”

Jim Valdeslice, who served in the ship’s 340-member crew from 1988-1992, said it was “heart-wrenching” to see huge holes cut in the ship’s bulkhead and deck and the removal of her famous mast. But, as a diver, he looks forward to seeing her again.

“And now my wife knows exactly where to put my ashes when I die,” he said.

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