Federal Ghost Fleet Illegally Polluting San Francisco Bay
SACRAMENTO, California, January 25, 2010 (ENS) – The federal agency in charge of more than 70 decaying naval vessels stored in northern San Francisco Bay is illegally polluting and storing hazardous waste in the bay, a federal judge ruled Thursday.
Judge Garland Burrell sided with environmental groups who brought the lawsuit against the Department of Transportation’s Maritime Administration, MARAD, to force the agency to stop the discharge of toxic heavy metals from the obsolete ships of the Suisun Bay Reserve Fleet, known informally as San Francisco Bay’s ghost fleet. Some of the old ships date back to World War II.
The ruling is a victory for the Natural Resources Defense Council, Arc Ecology and San Francisco Baykeeper, the original plaintiffs in the case, and for the San Francisco Bay Regional Water Quality Control Board, which joined the suit after it had been filed.
Materials containing heavy metals are falling from the aging ships into Suisan Bay. (Photo courtesy NRDC)
An estimated 20 tons of heavy metals, including lead, zinc, copper and cadmium, have already fallen, blown or washed off the ships into the water, according to a MARAD-commissioned analysis.
Unless cleaned up, the analysis projects that the vessels would shed as much as an additional 50 tons of heavy metals in the future.
Suisun Bay, located in northern San Francisco Bay near the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, is critical habitat for several species of endangered fish, including chinook salmon and delta smelt. Due to pollution, the state of California has warned residents to limit consumption of fish caught in Suisun Bay.
“This ruling is a huge victory for San Francisco Bay, its wildlife, and the people of California,” said NRDC attorney Michael Wall. “Sometimes the government acts as if it is above the law. This ruling shows the power of law in hands of citizens to protect their communities and environment from illegal pollution.”
Internal communications and testimony obtained by the environmental groups through the lawsuit show that MARAD has known about the problem for more than a decade. Yet the agency ignored several acts of Congress requiring disposal of the ships.
“The Court’s ruling is clear: each of the ghost fleet ships decaying in Suisun Bay violates our clean water and hazardous waste laws,” said Jason Flanders, staff attorney with San Francisco Baykeeper. “We can’t allow these vessels to contaminate the Bay for another 10 or 20 years. MARAD must clean and remove each vessel from Suisun Bay as quickly and safely as possible.”
Saul Bloom, executive director of Arc Ecology, said, “The federal government is one of the world’s most significant sources of pollution. The Suisun Bay Fleet is but one small example of the enormity of the problem.”
The Department of Transportation first announced plans to clean up the fleet at Suisun Bay on October 22, 2009. To date, two ships have been removed. The agency announced January 6 that MARAD has signed contracts to clean and recycle three World War II-era ships from the Suisun Bay Reserve Fleet, including the last two Victory ships moored in the bay.
A few of the more than 70 obsolete vessels in the Suisan Bay Reserve Fleet (Photo courtesy U.S. Navy)
“The Obama Administration is committed to environmental stewardship and to the clean up of Suisun Bay,” said Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood. “Many of these dilapidated ships pose a dangerous and unacceptable risk to the surrounding marine environment.”
“We have already successfully towed the first two ships out of the bay to be recycled, and with these next contracts in place, will continue moving swiftly forward to clean and recycle another three obsolete vessels,” the secretary said.
The ships will be towed first to BAE Systems San Francisco Ship Repair, where they will be cleaned of marine growth and loose exterior paint. They will then be towed to Brownsville, Texas to be dismantled by Esco Marine under the terms of three separate fee-for-service contracts for a total of $3.4 million.
The Rider Victory and the Winthrop Victory are the last two Victory ships owned by the federal agency; the third ship, the Mission Santa Ynez, as built in 1943. Victory ships were cargo ships built in the waning days of World War II to carry troops, materials and supplies overseas. Many saw service in the Korean and Vietnam conflicts, and some served in the first Gulf War.
Secretary LaHood acknowledged concerns that include heavy metals and antifouling agents in the paint that is peeling off of the vessels, as well as PCBs and other hazardous materials that may have been released.
Congress responded to these concerns by funding the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to design and implement a study of contaminants in the vicinity of the Suisun Bay fleet. NOAA’s Damage Assessment, Remediation, and Restoration Program began work on the study in January 2008.
Still, the plaintiff groups are seeking rapid action to clear Suisan Bay of the decaying ships. The case is set to go to trial in June to determine the scope of cleanup and removal measures. The plaintiffs are seeking removal of the peeling, toxic paint and permanent disposal of all the ships.
Bruce Wolfe, Executive Officer, San Francisco Bay Regional Water Quality Control Board, said, “California should not have to sue the federal government to prevent massive and illegal contamination of San Francisco Bay. This ruling underscores the need for MARAD to move quickly to implement a comprehensive and enforceable solution for all its ships and to stop its ongoing violations.”