MARAD Suisun Bay ship removal ahead of schedule
By Donna Beth Weilenman
With 36 obsolete vessels removed from the Reserve Fleet in Suisun Bay, and three more due to exit by next month, the Maritime Administration is two years ahead of schedule, United States Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood said Friday.
Visiting the fleet off the coast of Benicia, LaHood said MARAD exceeded its deadline to have 28 ships out of the bay by Sept. 30.
He said the Suisun Bay site “will be a shining example of the progress we can make when we work together. It’s an outstanding example of where we can make a difference.”
Money paid by competing recyclers who bid on those ships has helped the nation’s six maritime academies, he said, including the California Maritime Academies in Vallejo. In 2012 alone, those schools have shared $2.2 million from the ship sales, he said.
In turn, the schools train merchant mariners who are key to LaHood’s commitment to the shipping industry, which he said “is the future of American transportation. Shipping is the green ticket.”
LaHood has been determined to put maritime shipping on parity with other forms of transportation, and said his department has been investing in the Marine Highway Program that is developing cleaner methods of shipping and reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
MARAD Administrator David Matsuda said, “Scrap metal steel prices have been high as of late.” At one time, the federal government had to pay contractors to remove the ships. “It’s better if we can get some money back.”Joining LaHood and MARAD officials in visiting the Suisun Bay fleet site were U.S. Reps. George Miller, who currently represents Benicia, and Mike Thompson, who is seeking re-election, but in a new district that includes Benicia after post-census redistricting.
Miller described “an ongoing battle” he fought to convince federal officials to rid the Reserve Fleet of its decaying ships.
That effort began October 2009. A few months a court ruling labeled it a hazardous waste site, and accelerated the schedule previously announced locally by U.S. Transportation Deputy Secretary John Porcari.
“We got action,” Miller said, and the job is being done not only under budget but “with increased profits and improved environmental results.”
He called MARAD’s accelerated schedule “a remarkable change.”
Thompson said the removal of the ships, which began October 2009 with a policy change announced by President Barack Obama, has created jobs in the Bay Area.
Those including increased employment on Mare Island, where California Dry Dock Solutions, opened on the old Navy station, won two contracts to break apart ships and has been hired to prepare vessels for recycling by out-of-state vendors.
The Cimarron, Wabash and Roanoke are next to leave the fleet, MARAD Associate Administrator Kevin Torkarski said.
More ships would be gone, but only eight companies, including Dry Dock Solutions, are certified as capable of handling the jobs safely, correctly and with proper environmental care, Torkarski said.
Another California company, which he declined to identify, is applying for certification, too. Until then, Dry Dock Solutions is the only West Coast company that has been certified.
National Resources Defense Council’s senior attorney Michael Wall is one of those who joined in a suit which, when settled, committed MARAD both to a speedier schedule for ship removal and to increased caretaking of the surplus ships waiting their turn for demolition.
“This site was in a fairly degraded condition,” he said. Some World War II vessels hadn’t been moved since the Vietnam War, he said. “When we inspected them, you could hear crunching underfoot.”Since MARAD began scrubbing the old ships of flaking paint and other contaminants, it has collected, contained and removed 300 tons of toxic materials that in previous years would have dropped into the bay, he said.
Some of the methods used are high tech, resembling techniques used to scrub the area’s bridges. Others are as simple as using brooms and paint scrapers.
When metal screens failed to prevent flaking metal from slipping through ships’ scuppers, Reserve Fleet Supt. Joe Pecoraro considered using straw-filled wattles that are placed around storm drains.
Those proved too lightweight, and they disintegrated too quickly. Browsing the Internet, he found a Concord company, REM, that made wattles filled with Bay Area walnut shells. MARAD has employed them ever since. “It’s our number one best practice,” he said.
What MARAD is doing here, it’s doing at two other National Defense Reserve Fleet sites, the James River Reserve Fleet in Virginia, and the Beaumont Reserve Fleet in Texas, the men said.
The Suisun Bay won’t be emptied of old war ships, even after all 57 identified non-retention vessels are gone, Matsuda said. Several will remain, either to be used to provide parts for other ships, for use in training exercises or in reserve in case they’re needed for active duty.
As the men spoke Friday, U.S. Coast Guard personnel were training in the fleet’s waters.
In the past, the site has been used to practice spillage cleanups or for rescue exercises, including preparations for the liberation of the cargo ship Maersk Alabama after its capture by Somali pirates.
“It’s an active fleet site,” Matsuda said.