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Aging warships in S.F Bay will be recycled

A fleet of old, rotting warships shedding toxic paint into San Francisco Bay area waters will be cleaned up and recycled, federal officials announce Thursday.
/ Source: The Associated Press

A fleet of old, rotting warships shedding toxic paint into San Francisco Bay area waters will be cleaned up and recycled under a new plan announced by federal officials Thursday.

Deputy Secretary of Transportation John Porcari said the government has already awarded contracts to dispose of two World War II-era cargo ships from the Suisun Bay Reserve Fleet.

The group of more than 70 mostly obsolete vessels in Suisun Bay has been at the center of a nearly three-year deadlock between state water regulators and the federal government, which manages the fleet.

Porcari said the ships will be cleaned in dry-dock — not in the bay — alleviating state officials' concerns about additional water pollution.

"This is definitely big," said Bruce Wolfe, executive officer of the San Francisco Bay Regional Water Quality Control Board. "This is the start."

A congressional order set a 2006 deadline to scrap more than 50 ships in the fleet, but a regulatory quagmire has kept them in place.

Bound for Texas
A lack of disposal operations on the West Coast means the ships must be towed to Texas to be broken apart. Under federal law, the ships must be cleaned of invasive species clinging to their hulls before they can enter the ocean.

California officials fought a Bush administration plan to clean the ships where they were anchored, arguing that the process would cause paint laden with heavy metals to flake off into the bay. They also filed suit against the federal government claiming the paint flaking off the ships as they idle put the fleet in violation of the federal Clean Water Act.

Putting the ships in dry-dock in San Francisco lifts worries about the cleanup causing further pollution, Wolfe said. But he said the state would continue to press its suit until a settlement or court order puts legal force behind the government's commitment to get rid of all ships awaiting disposal.

Of the 57 ships slated for the scrap heap, Porcari said the 25 most decrepit vessels would be disposed first. The process would take several years owing to the limited space in dry-dock facilities, he said.

When steel prices were high, recyclers would pay for the rights to dispose of the ships in exchange for the steel they contain. In today's economy, the government is paying more than $2 million to a Brownsville, Texas, company to dismantle them.

The dry-docking will cost the government another $500,000 per ship.

Financial, environmental burden
"It is worth it in environmental terms to do it the right way," Porcari said.

The country's three major reserve fleets, including one in Beaumont, Texas, and another near Newport News, Va., were once maintained to return to active duty in case of war or disaster. Over time, many fell into disrepair and became a financial and environmental burden.

In Suisun Bay, the aging hulks tied together in rows have become a landmark visible from a heavily traveled commuter bridge. They are known together as the "ghost fleet" or the "mothball fleet."

The first two ships slated for dry-docking in coming months are the Earlham Victory and the Pan American Victory, built in nearby Richmond in 1945. The Victory ships mainly transported cargo and troops during World War II.

Talks are under way with a nonprofit group to turn the fleet's best known member, the battleship USS Iowa, into a museum, Porcari said.