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Bombing the Great Barrier Reef Isn't Even the Worst Thing the Navy Has Done to a Reef This Year

And that's saying something, because, seriously, they dropped bombs on a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Ben Richmond

Ben Richmond

In the on-going war on Mother Earth, the US Navy is at least trying to negotiate a treaty, attempting to wean the fleet off of oil and onto biofuels. But even those good intentions don’t look like much when you bomb the Great Barrier Reef.

During a biennial training exercise with the Australian military, called Talisman Saber, two American Harrier jets were supposed to drop unarmed bombs on a nearby island range. But war games became hell games, when all didn’t go as planned. US 7th Fleet Commander William Marks told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation that due to civilian boats in the area, the bombing mission had to be aborted, and the Harriers were called back.

As the jets returned, they ran low on fuel, and couldn’t safely land while still carrying their payload, so they had to do an emergency jettison. To avoid any other ships, the ordnance dropped in a protected marine park, in 50 meters of water by the Great Barrier Reef. Navy authorities said that dropping the two concrete dummy bombs and two disarmed laser-guided bombs where they did was the safest option—keeping the bombs out of shipping and navigation lanes, albeit still in an UNESCO World Heritage site.

While Australian environmentalists are understandably pissed, both the Navy and Australian government claim that the environmental impact of the bombing will be “minimal.”

The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority said, “Based on where the ordnance have been dropped in a location that is in water around 164 feet deep, about 19 miles from the nearest reef and 31 miles from the shoreline, the immediate impact on the marine environment is thought to be negligible."

Even as the Navy eyes biofuels and nuclear power, it has trouble with coral reefs. In January, a minesweeping ship ran aground on the Tubbataha Reef in the Philippines. The ship damaged thousands of square meters of the UNESCO World Heritage site, and the Philippines asked for $1.4 million in compensation.

USS Guardian being salvaged from the reef in March 2013, via the US Navy

The Navy isn’t the only one who’s hard on the reefs. The vibrant but fragile ecosystem of the Great Barrier Reef has been ravaged through run-off from Australian farms for almost a century, and recently is facing pressure from mining. On Navy's side, the Australian ocean isn’t the only guileless place where the American military has jettisoned bombs. Hell, they dropped an atomic bomb on South Carolina; it’s practically how they say hello. Still, bombing the Great Barrier Reef is a visceral gut-punch of a screw-up. As Larissa Waters, an Australian senator, told the Guardian, "I thought at first that this was a joke."

As pretty much the least it could do, the Navy has offered to help recover the unexploded bombs off the Great Barrier Reef. "If the park service and the government agencies of Australia determine that they want those recovered, then we will coordinate with them on that recovery process," the Seventh fleet spokesman told the BBC.

If that seems like too little to late to you, you’re not alone. "How can they protect the environment and bomb the reef at the same time?” asked Graeme Dunstan, an Australian environmentalist and anti-war activist. “Get real.”