Goodbye, Ghost Fleet

This was a good day for the ecology of San Francisco Bay, the people of California, and the rule of law.

This morning, with scores of former military support ships rusting in the background, the U.S. Maritime Administration, NRDC, Arc Ecology, Baykeeper, and state regulators announced the settlement of a lengthy lawsuit over MARAD’s “ghost fleet.”  Under the settlement, which is subject to Court approval, the Maritime Administration will clean up and permanently dispose more than fifty obsolete and decrepit ships, some of which have been moored in Suisun Bay with little or no maintenance since the Vietnam War.

The terms of the agreement require MARAD to:

  • Immediately clean up hazardous paint chips and debris that litter many of the vessels’ decks.  Work has already begun – MARAD announced this morning that it has already removed tons of hazardous paint debris from vessel decks – and will be completed within 120 days of the settlement’s approval by the Court.
  • Clean the peeling toxic paint from the exteriors of ships within two years, and clean the 25 ships in worst condition in dry dock.
  • Remove all obsolete vessels for disposal by September 2017, starting with the worst ships first. This includes removal of 10 ships by September 30 of this year and 10 more within the next year.  By 2013, all of the ships in the worst condition will be gone.
  • Conduct ongoing maintenance and sampling designed to ensure that the kinds of pollution problems that have occurred in the past never recur.

This aggressive schedule is a major victory for the health of the bay, and a significant reversal for MARAD in light of its history of violating clean water and hazardous waste laws.  Evidence amassed during litigation had painted a damning portrait of an agency that knew it was violating the law and did not stop the violations.  

In January, the Court ruled that MARAD was illegally discharging pollutants in violation of federal water pollution laws and illegally storing hazardous waste on the ships, in the middle of Suisun Bay. I wrote at the time that any plan to address the pollution from the fleet would have to be “prompt, thorough, and enforceable.” The schedule announced today is all of those things, and a major victory for the health of the Bay and the communities that depend on it. It reaffirms that when it comes to protecting the environment, no one is above the law – and especially not our own government.

Congressman George Miller (D-Martinez), who represents the district where the ships are located, opened this morning’s press conference at the Ghost Fleet site by noting the historic nature of the agreement.  He recalled that his efforts to solve the problem had been met by a prior Administration with literally no cooperation. But he and others expressed satisfaction that the bitterness and acrimony of past years has been replaced with a clear path forward.  After thirty months of hard-fought litigation, my colleagues and I couldn’t agree more.  We look forward to working with the Obama Administration and MARAD as these ships are cleaned up and removed once and for all.