Suisan Bay vessel maintenance found to pollute Bay Area water
The U.S. Maritime Administration said late Friday that it would initiate 'a complete and thorough review' of its ship-disposal program in Suisan Bay, after California water regulators concluded that pollution from cleaning the hulls of obsolete vessels is filtering into the bay.
Tests conducted by MarAd on two World War II-era vessels in the bay found that maintenance scrubbing of their hulls led to copper, zinc, lead and other toxic metals leeching into the water.
The U.S. Coast Guard in June ordered that any of the 74 decommissioned Suisan Bay vessels headed for disposal must undergo hull cleaning to stop the spread of invasive marine species. Currently, no ship-breaking facilities exist on the West Coast and the vessels must be towed to Texas for dismantling.
At least four of the Suisan Bay vessels were cleaned at docks in Richmond and Alameda last year.
The Contra Costa Times reported in September that federal documents showed that sheets of toxic metals came off the bottom of at least one vessel and were left in the water at the Port of Richmond, prompting a state investigation.
On Friday, Keith Lichten, an engineer with the San Francisco Bay Regional Water Control Board, said California would require the MarAd to either seek formal permits for further work or reach other agreements to monitor the hull cleaning and immediately remove any metals from the water.
Test results 'suggest to us that we don't want to see hull materials discharged into San Francisco Bay,' Lichten said.
In response, Maritime Administrator Sean Connaughton said Friday that no more vessels would be sent out of Suisun Bay until an agreement with the water board is reached and that the ship-disposal process will be reviewed. No details were provided.
The Contra Costa Times reported that two vessels involved in the MarAd test, a World War II cargo vessel and a 1940s repair vessel, departed for Texas scrapping yards last month, without being cleaned.
A MarAd spokesperson said the vessels were sent to prevent delay of $2.6 million in disposal contracts already set for the two vessels. The administration pays to have obsolete vessels destroyed.
MarAd told the Times that the vessels would be cleaned before reaching Texas, but did not specify where.
That work California considers likely to spread pollution might instead be performed in foreign or international waters, 'is a classic double standard,' Jim Puckett of the Seattle-based Basel Action Network, told the Times. BAN is an environmental group that monitors the global movement of hazardous and toxic materials.
'This is a way of transferring waste,' said Puckett, whose group actively monitors MarAd vessel disposal. 'The poisons go along for the ride. This is the cheap and dirty way out.'
Puckett speculated that the cleaning work on the two vessels would be done in either Mexican or Panamanian waters, a charge that MarAd denied Friday.
MarAd records obtained under the federal Freedom of Information Act show that some of the vessels are in very poor condition, regularly taking on water that has to be pumped out of their hulls. Ship experts told the Times that the worst of the vessels might not endure the six-week journey to the Texas scrap yards.
Several companies have considered starting ship-disposal operations in Oregon, but legislation recently introduced there would require all scrapping to be done in dry docks, substantially increasing costs.