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The Vandenberg Leaves For Key West; 13-year Process To Create Artificial Reef Clears 'Major Hurdle'

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KEY WEST, Florida -- The Vandenberg is finally headed to Key West and the last steps in a 13-year process to create the newest artificial reef in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary.

Sunday, tugboats eased the 523-foot-long retired Air Force missile tracking ship down the Elizabeth River into Chesapeake Bay. From there, a single 90-foot-long oceangoing tugboat, the Elsbeth III, led the 66-year-old vessel on its final Atlantic coastal voyage.

The 1,100-mile voyage to Key West, undertaken at about 6 mph, should take eight days, according to Captain Latham Smith, owner of Smith Towing.

"A major hurdle has been cleared," said Jim Scholl, Key West’s city manager and a retired U.S. Navy captain. "Everyone can now see that the ship is on the way."

Following the Vandenberg’s arrival in Key West, at least a month will be required to complete necessary work before the ship can be sunk six miles south of the island in about 140 feet of water.

Project organizers anticipate the scuttling should take place between May 20 and June 1, but won’t project an exact date until after the ship arrives in Key West.

The $8.6-million project was fraught with significant funding challenges, but local, state and federal agencies committed funds and First State Bank of the Florida Keys rescued the venture last December, bidding $1.35 million to purchase the ship after it was put up for auction on the steps of the federal courthouse in Norfolk. The bank subsequently transferred the ship’s title to the City of Key West.

Seventy percent of the funding resources and some 75,000 man-hours were required to rid the vessel of contaminants, according to Jeff Dey of Reefmakers.

Pollutants that were removed include 71 cubic yards of asbestos, 193 tons of materials that contained potentially carcinogenic substances, 46 tons of refuse, 300 pounds of mercury-containing materials and 185 55-gallon drums of paint chips, Dey said.

The removals and additional ship cleansing were required to receive the necessary federal and state permits to sink the ship in the sanctuary without risking environmental impact to the marine ecosystem.

“There is simply nothing else like the Vandenberg for scuba divers,” said Joe Weatherby, who founded Artificial Reefs of the Keys and began efforts to get the Vandenberg to Key West. “There are a dozen dive points that will come within 40 to 50 feet of the surface, while deeper areas will provide opportunities for advanced divers.

"At about 100 feet, the properly trained and equipped technical diver will be able swim a full 475 feet along the starboard section of Deck 1," he said.

The ship first saw duty as a U.S. Army troop transport named the General Harry Taylor. It became the Gen. Hoyt S. Vandenberg in 1963 and tracked Mercury, Gemini and Apollo space launches off Cape Canaveral. But it got its most public exposure when cast as a Russian science ship in "Virus," a 1999 motion picture starring Jamie Lee Curtis and Donald Sutherland.

The Key West National Weather Service will provide a daily Vandenberg weather briefing video progress report on the Vandenberg trip.

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