No more fleet by 2017
Officials say Suisun Bay ships all to be towed, scrapped within 7 years
By Donna Beth Weilenman
The 20 Suisun Bay ships in the poorest condition will be gone by Sept. 30, 2012, and the rest of the obsolete Reserve Fleet ships — 52 in all — will be towed, cleaned and scrapped by Sept. 30, 2017, federal officials said Wednesday.
The announcement ends a three-year suit filed against the U.S. Maritime Administration by environmental groups, representatives of both sides said. In addition, MARAD ships waiting their turn to leave will be cleaned regularly to prevent an estimated 50 tons of toxic flaking paint from entering and contaminating the bay.
U.S. Rep. George Miller, D-Martinez, made the announcement at the offices of the Suisun Bay Reserve Fleet, just yards from the decaying old war ships he called “a liability for the federal government.”
“We know the contribution to history the fleet has made,” said Miller, who represents Benicia. “That time has passed.”
Speaking of the agreement that ended the lawsuit, Miller said, “The common plan to remove the ships and dispose of them in a timely fashion is very rewarding.”
The lawsuit was filed by three environmental groups, Arc Ecology, San Francisco Bay Keeper and the Natural Resources Defense Council, as well as the California Regional Water Quality Control Board’s San Francisco Bay Region. The suit said MARAD knew as early as 1997 that it was storing hazardous waste in the bay and polluting its waters.
Last January, U.S. District Court Judge Garland Burrell agreed that MARAD and the U.S. Department of Transportation were violating hazardous waste laws in the way the ships were maintained. The suit’s settlement must be approved by the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of California, where the document was filed.
The settlement doesn’t affect Coast Guard- and Navy-owned vessels, such as the USS Iowa battleship and the tugboat Hoga that helped pull ships away from the Pearl Harbor attack. Nor does it involve vessels MARAD is keeping ready to deploy in emergencies.
Miller said he hoped some of the ships’ recycling could take place in the Bay Area, a sentiment echoed by Saul Bloom, executive director of Arc Ecology, who said companies and workers in the Bay Area, which had endured the pollution caused by the ships, should benefit from their recycling.
However, no West Coast company is certified for the dismantling, although California Dry Dock Solutions is working to make Mare Island drydocks capable of handling both the cleanup and the dismantling. Worldwide Salvage Saipan is looking to do the same in the Commonwealth of the Northern Marianas Islands.
“There’s no reason not to use the drydocks,” Bloom said of Bay Area sites. “Mare Island is close by, and it’s easy access.” He said environmental samples need to be taken before that area is dredged deep enough for the big ships to be towed there. “There are problems and contamination, but these are remediable situations.”
MARAD Acting Administrator David T. Matsuda said the Obama administration wants the ships removed in ways that protect the environment, and wants communities to be kept informed about how the remaining ships are being maintained. Prior to Wednesday’s announcement, MARAD already had scrubbed 17 of the ships, collecting 120 tons of debris that could have fallen into the bay, he said.
In addition, Matsuda said, the Reserve Fleet no longer is accepting ships in failing condition. While some newer ships that could be readied quickly for active duty are not part of the settlement, Matsuda said MARAD would be taking care of them, too, so their conditions don’t decline. “We don’t want to get sued again,” he said.
“This represents a whole change in attitude,” said Deb Self, executive director of San Francisco Bay Keeper. “We’re very pleased with the aggressive timetable. We can’t state how much of a victory this is.”
Reporters and officials Wednesday saw tug boats loosen the Mission Santa Ynez, the last World War II-era liquid bulk tanker of its type, from surrounding ships. By the time announcements were concluded, the tanker had reached the Benicia Bridge on its way to San Francisco, where it will be cleaned of loose paint and marine growth before being towed to Texas for dismantling.
Visit the U.S. Maritime Administration’s Web site at http://www.marad.dot.gov/.