Mothball Fleet Update: The Long Goodbye to Suisun Bay’s Derelict Ships

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This 2009 photograph shows decaying ships of the Mothball Fleet anchored in Suisun Bay. Photo by Laurent Meillier.

The bridge between Martinez and Benicia soars across the water, offering spectacular views of the Carquinez Strait to the west and Suisun Bay to the east. And if you look east just before reaching the Benicia side, you’ll also see an orderly array of ships far below, their gray hulls rising from the blue water.

This is the Suisun Bay Reserve Fleet, a national defense anchorage operated by the Maritime Administration (MARAD) that also houses what’s left of the Mothball Fleet. Infamous for shedding tons of toxic paint into the Bay, only two of the original 57 obsolete vessels remain today and — now that the new federal budget has passed — they will finally be gone too by the end of September.

MARAD’s routine duties include timely disposal of decommissioned federal ships. But the Mothball Fleet sat — unmaintained and disintegrating — in Suisun Bay for decades before anyone (besides MARAD, that is) knew they were poisoning the water. Then, in 2006, local water quality watchdogs learned by chance that the Mothball Fleet’s heavy metal-laden paint was peeling. David Elias of the San Francisco Bay Regional Water Quality Control Board got a tip from Thomas Peele, then a reporter at the Contra Costa Times. “He let us know they were cleaning vessels in the water,” Elias recalled. This is a no-no partly because it can spread the marine life growing on hulls into waters where they don’t belong.

When Elias inspected the Mothball Fleet, he found an even bigger problem. “They’d been sitting there since World War II and were in very bad shape,” Elias said, adding, “These ships are enormous and there’s a lot of paint. It had flaked off in big sheets and was inches thick, crunching as we walked.” And presumably, a lot of paint had already peeled or blown into the water.

Marine paint contains toxicants to ward off corrosion and marine organisms, which increase drag and so decrease the fuel economy of boats. According to the US Environmental Protection Agency’s guide for ship scrappers, marine paint is as much as 30 percent lead and other heavy metals. The EPA guide doesn’t specify whether this is by weight or by volume, but either way the figure is shockingly large.

The San Francisco Bay Regional Water Quality Control Board’s
David Elias inspected Mothball Fleet ships. Photo by photo by Laurent Meillier.

In 2007, using the Freedom of Information Act to access MARAD documents, Peele uncovered a report estimating that the derelict ships in Suisun Bay had already discharged 20 tons of heavy metals into the water — and had the potential to discharge another 60 tons. Baykeeper, a local nonprofit that regularly patrols the San Francisco Bay by boat, had noticed the problem but not the extent. “That was more than we’d ever thought,” said Baykeeper Executive Director Sejal Choksi-Chugh, adding that MARAD was “using the Bay as a junkyard.”

Peele’s discovery galvanized Baykeeper and two other environmental nonprofits to sue MARAD to clean up the ships. In 2008, the regional water board also filed a suit against MARAD, led by Elias. “Stormwater ran through the paint on the decks, becoming a concentrated source of pollution to the Bay,” he said, continuing, “You can’t discharge anything into the waters of the Bay without a permit — and they’d never have gotten a permit for that.”

After the two lawsuits joined forces, MARAD agreed to settle in 2009. The settlement, which took a year to reach, went beyond national requirements for ship removal. Notably, the terms stipulated monitoring stormwater from the ships until they were removed, as well as cleaning the hulls in dry dock before removal. The latter helps keep the Bay free of the toxic paint and marine life dislodged during cleaning.

In 2010, MARAD had cleared the decks of the 20 worst ships, removing 140 tons of exfoliated paint. “All this paint accumulated for decades — they needed to scoop it up,” Elias said. Then MARAD began the task of removing the 57 ships in the Mothball Fleet.

Slated for recycling, these obsolete ships had instead piled up in Suisun Bay. One reason is that MARAD was originally required to sell them but couldn’t because the price of steel had tanked. “We were at the mercy of the scrap steel market — we couldn’t give ships away for $10,” said Shawn Ireland, director of MARAD’s Office of Ship Disposal Programs. There are two other federal reserve fleets, and altogether the three fleets once contained more than 220 obsolete vessels.

In 2001, Congress revised the ship disposal rules, allowing MARAD to pay for recycling if the ships can’t be sold. “We’ve pretty much cleared the fleets out,” Ireland said, adding, “The Suisun Bay Reserve Fleet has the last of the backlog.” Now that the federal budget has passed, he can finally clear the rest of the backlog — and meet the September 30, 2017 settlement deadline for removing the Mothball Fleet from Suisun Bay.

He doesn’t yet know what it will cost to remove the final two ships. But removing and dismantling a ship in fiscal year 2016 cost more than $1.6 million. Once the recycling announcement goes out for bid, ship removal is relatively speedy. “From start to finish, ships can be out of the fleet in 60 to 90 days,” Ireland said.

Hulls are cleaned locally, taking about a week, to get them ready for towing to a disposal center. The only centers qualified to dismantle federal ships are on the Gulf Coast — one in Brownsville, Texas and another in New Orleans — which means towing the ships through the Panama Canal, a distance of 3,270 nautical miles. Towing takes about 45 days. Then comes dismantling, which takes up to nine months. Reusable metals are recycled while asbestos, PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls), and other toxic materials go to hazardous waste landfills in Texas.

“The settlement worked out perfectly,” Choksi-Chugh said. And it also had an unexpected benefit. “MARAD is so pleased with the removal process that they’re implementing the same measures in the rest of the reserve fleet, even though they’re not all required,” she said, adding, “It’s a win-win: a positive outcome we were not expecting from the litigation.”

Robin Meadows covers water for the Monitor.