By Thomas Peele, The Oakland Tribune, Calif.
Mar. 31–The U.S. Maritime Administration, state clean-water regulators and environmentalists have reached an agreement to settle a federal lawsuit and speed the removal of obsolete ships from Suisun Bay under a deal to be announced this morning.
Officials also will detail plans to ease pollution concerns by cleaning ships that are scheduled to remain in the bay for several years as they await recycling. It is estimated that it could take five years or more to remove all 52 aging merchant and military ships anchored near the Benicia Bridge that are scheduled to be scrapped.
What the Maritime Administration described Tuesday as a “major announcement about the operation and maintenance of obsolete vessels in the Suisun Bay Reserve Fleet” is scheduled for 11 a.m. today in Benicia. The agreement will end more than two years of federal litigation, said a person in the federal government with knowledge of the matter, who requested anonymity.
Officials are expected to detail a two-pronged approach to dealing with the pollution:
–Removing obsolete ships from the fleet for disposal more quickly and cleaning them at a dry dock in San Francisco before towing them to Texas scrapping yards.
n Cleaning the exterior hulls of ships that will remain at anchor in the bay for years as they await disposal.
A Maritime Administration fleet inventory dated Feb. 28, lists 52 of the 62 ships anchored in
Suisun Bay as either scheduled for disposal or under a review process that will lead to them being scheduled for disposal.
Maritime Administration and state officials declined to comment Tuesday, citing plans for Rep. George Miller, D-Martinez, Maritime Administrator David Matsuda and other dignitaries to speak at the news conference.
The announcement is expected to end years of contention over the maintenance and disposal of the fleet.
A 2007 report estimated that more than 20 tons of paint containing lead, zinc, copper, cadmium and other heavy metals had fallen from the ships into the water. Environmentalists sued the Maritime Administration, alleging violations of state and federal environmental laws. The San Francisco Bay Regional Water Quality Control Board joined the suit in 2008.
In January, federal Judge Garland Burrell in Sacramento ruled for the plaintiffs, finding that the peeling paint was, indeed, polluting Suisun Bay.
Of the 52 ships headed for scrap, 10 are World War II relics that include rescue tugs, tankers and troop ships. One of them, the Mission Santa Yanez, a tanker built in 1944, will be towed from the fleet following today’s announcement. It will be scrapped in Texas.
The Mission Santa Yenez will be the fifth ship removed from Suisun Bay since October when the Obama administration ended a two-year moratorium and began recycling ships as the litigation played out before Burrell.
A major policy shift in ship recycling was included in the restart of the ship disposal program. For the first time, the Maritime Administration placed the ships in dry docks and cleaned them of both underwater marine growth and peeling paint before towing them to Texas.
The Coast Guard requires that organic growth be removed from ships before they are moved to stop the spread of marine organisms to waters where they are not native.
Under the Bush administration, maritime officials had tried a cheaper alternative — cleaning the hulls of seaweed and barnacles without taking the ships out of the water.
The removal of the marine growth in dry dock eased relations with the regional water board, where engineers had argued that the work could not be done while a ship was at anchor without causing pollution.
A report that the Times obtained under the Freedom of Information Act in 2006 showed large strips of metals came off the hulls when organic materials were stripped from a ship at the Port of Richmond.
The metals were left in the water, prompting the water board to begin an investigation.
Miller has praised the recent efforts to dry-dock the ships, calling it a clear example of differences in environmental policy between the Bush and Obama administrations.
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