Md. may go after fish with Army tanks


February 05, 1994|By Ted Shelsby | Ted Shelsby,Sun Staff Writer

It sounds like a great deal: Free tanks from the U.S. Army.

And the state of Maryland is nibbling, you might say.

While other states might be at a loss as to what to do with used Korean- and Vietnam War-vintage M-48 and M-60 tanks, Maryland wants to use them as a home for fish.

The plan is to take the 50-ton vehicles, with their cannons and tracks intact, to a site in the Atlantic Ocean about 12 miles northeast of Ocean City, and drop them in 70 feet of water.

Once they settle to the bottom the tanks will act as artificial reefs and almost instantly attract a wide variety of sea life. The scuba divers and fishing boats won't be far behind and, officials hope, the cash registers at the hotels, restaurants and other tourist attractions at Ocean City will soon be ringing up the economic impact.

It can be a boon to Ocean City, said DeWitt Myatt, manager of the Maryland Department of Natural Resources' reef program. He said studies have shown an artificial reef "can produce millions of dollars in return in a very short time."

If the tank plan is implemented -- there are still a few hitches to be worked out -- it would not be the first time that Maryland has used surplus military equipment to bolster sea life off Ocean City.

In 1989, the USS Blenny, a decommissioned submarine that sank nine Japanese ships during World War II, was sunk off Ocean City to produce an artificial reef. "It almost instantly made Ocean City a scuba destination," Mr. Myatt said.

Mr. Myatt said the state is eager to take the Army up on its offer, but there's the problem of transporting the tanks from a military depot in Anniston, Ala., to the site off Ocean City.

"These tanks are heavy," Mr. Myatt said, "50 tons or more, and if we have to hire a private contractor to transport them, that could be beyond our means."

A second problem, he said, has to do with custody of the weapons. He laughed, and said: "You don't want them ending in the hands of the wrong people."

He said the best thing is for the military to have control over the tanks until they are dropped to the ocean floor.

To keep down the cost of transportation, state officials are hoping the Army Reserve's 949th Transportation Co., based at Curtis Bay, will come to the rescue.

A plan is being studied that would have the tanks moved by train to the Curtis Bay Army Reserve Center. From there the 949th would take them to their final destination at sea as part of its training program.

"This is the key," Mr. Myatt said. "Without the Army's help the cost would be prohibitive."

Larry J. Wilson, a spokesman for the Pentagon's Defense Logistics Agency in Alexandria, Va., said the normal practice would be to strip and sell the obsolete tanks as scrap metal.

But the Defense Department has decided that the environmental benefits and economic opportunities for coastal states far outweigh their scrap market value.

James Sanchez, an official with the Defense Logistics Agency, said the military wants to give states every opportunity to obtain the tanks before a decision is made to sell them for scrap.

The Army expects to have 6,000 surplus tanks free for the taking over the next two years. Maryland officials have their eyes on at least 12 and perhaps more than 30.

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