Groups sue to force feds to remove ôghost fleetö from Suisan Bay
Three Bay Area environmental groups asked a federal court Monday to force the U.S. Maritime Administration to dispose of the mothballed reserve fleet the agency maintains in Suisan Bay.
The lawsuit, filed by the National Resources Defense Council, Arc Ecology and San Francisco Baykeeper, claims that the 74 vessels are polluting San Francisco Bay with toxic materials and have “ceased being useful for transportation and are now just floating junkyards.”
The federal government has been using Suisan Bay as a storage area for decommissioned vessels since just after World War II. At one time the 'Ghost Fleet' numbered in the hundreds. Today about 80 are left, with 55 classified as either ready for disposal or being readied. Despite congressional deadlines, the disposal of the fleet, costing upwards of $1 million per vessel, has been hampered by increased regulatory demands and the lack of any West Coast ship breaking facilities.
The reserve fleet in Suisan Bay is one of three maintained by MarAd. The agency has said it has a backlog of obsolete ships despite having scrapped more than 100 from its other fleet locations in Virginia and Texas.
A study commissioned by the Contra Costa Times newspaper in May 2006 found that sediment samples indicated a significant threat to animals and anyone eating fish from the area.
In February, tests conducted on MarAd vessels in the Suisan Bay fleet found that maintenance scrubbing of their hulls led to copper, zinc, lead and other toxic metals leeching into the water.
An additional MarAd report, released this summer, suggested that dozens of the World War II-era vessels are a much greater risk to the environment than MarAd had previously acknowledged.
The report details that at least 21 tons of seven toxic metals, in addition to quantities of sloughed off paint have fallen or been washed into the bay, with at least another 66 tons still on the vessels.
Analysis of the report by the paper's outside consultants suggests that the materials still aboard the vessels are likely to wind up in the bay if not cleaned up in situ.
The MarAd report examined 40 vessels in the mothballed fleet and took 24 samples from the bay floor around the vessel. Government investigators found that the World War II-era paint, applied long before lead regulation in paints was mandatory, is highly toxic. Though only 25 percent of the paint has entered the bay, the remaining 75 percent is badly peeling.
In June, MarAd said it wanted to scrap most of the vessels by transporting them to Gulf of Mexico shipyards, but found it could not move them without first removing most of the deteriorating lead-based paint from the hulls in situ. A dispute between government agencies over how to proceed has left MarAd in a catch-22 situation and delayed any movement of vessels from the Suisan Bay 'ghost fleet.'
California law ,prevents the toxic material from being removed while the vessels are in the bay and Coast Guard rules prohibited the ships from being moved without being cleaned.
An August report by MarAd Administrator Sean Connaughton said the agency was making progress on the problem, but the NRDC said Monday that the agency does not have the political will to hammer out a deal with other agencies.