Public supports equal Navy regulation for environmental protection and emergency planning

by Laura Hunter


public opinion poll released in August shows that the public supports equal protection for health and safety from Navy operational impacts and emergency planning around Navy nuclear reactors by wide margins. The poll also found that the public needed more information before they could form an opinion about locating two more nuclear carriers in San Diego Bay. The telephone poll was conducted by the San Diego State Social Science Research Laboratory in April and May for Environmental Health Coalition.

The results are viewed as significant, given the very large presence of the military in San Diego County. "The poll results make it clear that San Diegans want assurance that the Navy is under equal regulation for environmental and health rules to ensure community safety," stated Congressman Bob Filner.

Position on Holding Navy to the Same Environmental Protection Laws as Other Organizations

Favor 66%
Not Sure 22%
Oppose 13%

Position on Nuclear-Powered Vessel Home-porting Issue

Favor increasing number of home-ported vessels 24%
Favor retaining current number of home-ported vessels 16%
Favor removing all home-ported vessels 12%
Need more information to decide 47%
Other 1%

Position on Requiring Navy to Create EmergencyPlanning Zone

Strongly favor 60%
Somewhat favor 15%
Somewhat oppose 3%
Strongly oppose 10%
Not sure 12%

Strong support for equal environmental regulation

  Support for equal environmental regulation of the Navy was clear in the responses to the survey questions. A large majority of the respondents (66%) said they would support a law that would hold the Navy to the same environmental protection laws as other organizations. When asked for the basis of their opinion, respondents cited support for application of consistent standards, concern about risks from operations, distrust of the Navy, and concern for the environment. The Navy is exempt from many important environmental and public safety laws, or has "sovereign immunity" from all or parts of certain environmental and safety laws. For example, Navy ships are completely exempt from laws that govern oil spills (Oil Pollution Act of 1990) and are immune from monetary penalties for all spills under the Clean Water Act.


Emergency Planning for neighbors of nuclear-powered vessels

  An overwhelming 75% of the respondents said they would support requirements for emergency planning zones around nuclear-powered vessels in San Diego Bay. Such a planning area is a requirement around commercial nuclear reactors, such as San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station, to guide response for residents living near nuclear reactors in the event of an emergency. Strong support for emergency planning was also evidenced by the fact that it enjoyed majority support by those respondents who had served in the armed forces (52%) as well as those who had not (81%). Majorities were also shown among the three age groups surveyed (79%, 77%, 66%), with younger respondents supporting at the highest levels.


Public needs more information

The participants were asked their opinion on plans to home-port two additional nuclear-powered aircraft carriers in San Diego Bay. Nearly 50% of the respondents said they would need more information to form an opinion, 24% supported the increase, 16% favored the current number of carriers and submarines, and 12% favored removal of all nuclear vessels from the bay. Concern about risks were the main reason respondents supported reducing or maintaining the current number of vessels.

Other findings of the poll include:

  • When questioned about a hypothetical situation involving construction of a new nuclear power plant in the downtown area, 48% of the respondents opposed such construction, with 45% needing more information. In spite of the fact that 46% stated no concern about risks from San Onofre, only 7% supported construction of this hypothetical plant in downtown San Diego.
  • Almost one-half of those polled did not know if there were commercial or military nuclear reactors operating in San Diego County.
  • Most respondents considerably overestimated the percentage of the military contribution to total payroll within the County, citing percentages as high as 50-65%. Only 17% of the respondents were able to provide the correct proportion of military contribution to regional payroll: 10%.
  • Once informed of the real contribution level of ten percent, 50% of respondents stated that the military contribution "was about right," as opposed to supporting increases or decreases.

In May, the Navy cleared its final regulatory hurdle to permit the home-porting of two additional nuclear-powered aircraft carriers in San Diego Bay. "Now we begin the long process of trying to prevent impacts to our health and environment from all Navy operations," stated Laura Hunter from Environmental Health Coalition. "Unless we can secure equal protection through requirements for emergency planning and removal of sovereign immunity and exemptions from environmental and disclosure laws, this will be more difficult," she said.

Marilyn Field, a community activist in Coronado who lives near the Naval Air Station, North Island, was encouraged by the poll results. She stated, "It is heartening to see that the San Diego public at-large cares about the impacts to communities from Navy operations and not just the most impacted neighbors. Now that the carrier home port is finalized, we have to turn our attention to all of the Navy operational impacts, such as helicopter traffic, toxic air emissions, storage and transportation of hazardous waste, as well as the risks posed by the carriers.

The poll was conducted from telephone interviews with randomly selected adult residents of San Diego County. A total of 506 interviews were conducted. The poll was conducted in both English and Spanish and has a margin of error of +/- 4% with a confidence level of 95%.