Water Board Sues US over Mothball Fleet

August 30th, 2008 - by admin

Kelly Zito / San Francisco Chronicle – 2008-08-30 00:28:40


(August 29, 2008) — A regional water board is readying a lawsuit against the US Maritime Administration claiming federal authorities have allowed toxic chemicals and metals from the mothball fleet to continue to leach into Suisun Bay.

The San Francisco Bay Regional Water Quality Control Board contends the 50-plus decrepit ships – some cargo ships dating to World War II – have dumped asbestos, used oil and as much as 19 tons of mercury, lead and copper from their hulls and pose hazards to water quality, commercial and sport fishing, fish migration and endangered species.

Unless federal maritime officials halt the pollution discharges in 60 days, the water board plans to file suit in US District Court in Sacramento under the Clean Water Act.

Last fall, three environmental organizations sued to force the Maritime Administration to remove the ships from Suisun Bay. That case is winding its way through the federal court in Sacramento and is on track for a September 2009 trial date. Meantime, the ships remain – about 57 considered badly corroded.

Despite ongoing complaints, maritime officials said the water board’s move was disappointing and highlights the agency’s rock-and-a-hard-place position in the Bay Area.

In essence, the Maritime Administration said it cannot move the ships without first cleaning them, according to a US Coast Guard requirement under the National Invasive Species Act. Cleaning the ships, however, can release more toxic substances into the water, thereby violating the Clean Water Act.

Public affairs Director Shannon Russell said her agency complied with the water board’s January 2007 request to stop moving ships out of Suisun Bay for fear of water contamination and environmental damage. Working with the water board over the last two years, the federal agency attempted to create technology that would contain up to 90 percent of pollutants discharged from cleaning the ships’ hulls.

Russell said the water board was not satisfied with the technology.

Meanwhile, the Maritime Administration disposed of more than a dozen obsolete and decaying ships from Virginia and Texas, all of which were in better shape than the vessels in Suisun Bay.

“Other states have concluded that it is better for the environment to remove these vessels in a timely manner,” Russell said in an interview.

But Bruce Wolfe, executive officer of the San Francisco Bay Regional Water Quality Control Board, said the cleaning technology was less than convincing. More importantly, he said, maritime officials have dragged their feet on painting the ships and removing debris – measures that would help stem the noxious flow of chemicals and metals.

Recently, the Maritime Administration offered to move four ships to Mare Island in Vallejo for dismantling, Wolfe said. Still, Wolfe complained that maritime officials are not moving fast enough.

“That leaves over 50 ships out there,” Wolfe said. “And there are so many problems it’s obvious they’re going to be there for a while. They need to take aggressive action to maintain those ships.”

Wolfe suggested that the ships be sent to dry dock to be patched together and repainted. However, there are concerns that the ships may be too fragile to be raised out of the water.

E-mail Kelly Zito at kzito@sfchronicle.com.

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