523-foot-long ship to be sunk

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Following a 1,100-mile voyage and more than a decade of planning, the Florida Keys’ newest artificial reef, the ex-military missile tracking ship Gen. Hoyt S. Vandenberg, arrived in Key West.

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The Vandenberg is docked behind the USS Mohawk, an historic Coast Guard ship open as a floating museum, at the East Quay Wall in Truman Annex Harbor.

"We're all pretty excited here in Key West and particularly in view of the fact this is going to be the second-largest artificial reef in the world," said Key West City Commissioner Bill Verge, who is serving as a project liaison between the city and various state and federal agencies.

Final preparations to sink the ship has begun. Project organizers said the scuttling should take place sometime between May 20 and June 1, about six miles south of Key West in 140 feet of water in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary.

That work primarily involves the cutting of hundreds of large holes on the ship's decks and sides to help ensure the vessel sinks in an upright position.

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Seventy percent of the $8.6 million project's funding resources and some 75,000 man-hours were required to rid the vessel of contaminants with work executed in two Norfolk, Va., shipyards.

Pollutants 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, officials 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 the U.S. space program's launches off Cape Canaveral. It also served in the Pacific, monitoring U.S. defense missile test launches and eaves dropped on Russian missile launches during the Cold War. Port Canaveral, Fla., was the Vandenberg's last active duty home port beginning in 1976. The Vandenberg was formally retired in 1983 and was transferred to the James River Naval Reserve Fleet.