The ghostly hulls of more than 50 military ships sit bobbing in Suisun Bay. Their glory days long behind them, they rest in a naval purgatory.
Yesterday, a federal judge slapped the U.S. government for storing the ships in the estuary between San Francisco and Sacramento, where they hemorrhage toxic paint and metals into the fragile ecosystem.
The collection of aging, retired ships is known by many names: the Ghost Fleet, the Mothball Fleet, and most nobly, the Reserve Fleet. To environmentalists, it is simply a floating, seething mass of toxic hazard.
“The paint on these ships is loaded with heavy metals," said Michael Wall, staff attorney for the Natural Resource Defense Council. “They’re toxic to fish, they’re toxic to people.”
The two sides are set to meet in federal court in June, unless they reach an agreement on how to remove the ships quickly.
“They should get rid of those ships as fast as possible,” said Wall. “If it were possible, they should get rid of them tomorrow.”
The U.S. Maritime Administration said it is working to remove the ships. Two aging ships were hauled to a San Francisco drydock in December, where crews scrubbed them clean of flaking paint and invasive species.
“We know that many of these dilapidated ships pose a dangerous and unacceptable risk, ” said U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood in a statement. “The Obama Administration is committed to environmental stewardship and to the cleanup of Suisun Bay.”
The government said it has already reached an agreement to haul away three more ships in March.
Fifty-five obsolete ships remain in Suisun Bay. Their future will likely include a stop at the BAE Shipyards in San Francisco. The shipyard handled the cleanup of the first two ships hauled out of Suisun Bay, on their way to a scrapyard in Texas.
“The first two ships we did were built in the '40s and had been sitting up there since the '70s,” said Dennis Deisinger, director of the company’s business development. “The ones that we have done, the paint is just flaking off and going right in the bay and that’s not right.”
Deisinger said it takes 10 days to clean up a single ship. He said the company would welcome any business the government sends its way.
“It’s more work for us, keeping a lot of our guys here in the Bay Area busy,” said Deisinger. “We’ll take any work we can get.
The company has repaired everything from massive cruise liners, to the damaged Cosco Bussan tanker after it struck the Bay Bridge, spilling thousands of gallons of oil. Deisinger said the problem for the government is there aren’t many scrapyards and dismantlers that could handle all the Mothball Fleet. But he said if the government did speed up the timetable for removing the ships, his crews would be ready.