There's a reason why most ocean-going vessels need regular paint jobs and maintenance. Old paint, exposed to weather, can peel or chip off. The toxic material in many vessels' paints can poison local waterways and ecosystems. That's why NRDC, Arc Ecology, and Baykeeper have sued the U.S. Maritime Administration (MARAD) to halt the discharge of heavy-metal laden paint from more than fifty "rust-forsaken" former military ships that are moored in Suisun Bay. According to analysis commissioned by MARAD itself, those vessels have already dropped some twenty tons of heavy metals into the water.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) issued a report on Thursday that looked at concentrations of metals right under this "ghost fleet." The NOAA study found some instances in which arsenic, copper, lead, and chromium levels near these ships were higher than levels in much of the rest of San Francisco Bay, but it did not recommend a cleanup of that sediment, in part because the contaminant concentrations were not much higher than the rest of San Francisco Bay. If rusted, lead-based paint remnants don't seem that toxic, this doesn't say much for the health of the Bay. NOAA's study also doesn't tell us much about the impact of these ships.
NOAA concedes that MARAD's ships are flaking toxic paint into Suisun Bay. The question is, what happens to that paint? NOAA looked right under the ships and found some paint, but not enough for NOAA to consider it a hotspot. Surprised? Not really.
Suisun Bay is a tidally-influenced river environment. Water, and sediment, are flowing downstream, into San Francisco Bay, and eventually, out the Golden Gate. The large paint flakes that are visibly peeling off these ships are likely to float downstream before they settle out. Indeed, NOAA itself agrees that contaminants from the fleet have migrated downstream outside the area they tested. And even if some paint settled into sediments near the ships, it won't stay there, because as NOAA also concedes, the sediment itself is moving downstream. Put another way, NOAA seems to have looked in the wrong place.
So how much does NOAA's study, which looked right under the ships, tell us about the paint pollution that lands further downstream? NOAA's study tells us nothing at all. What we do know is that, a bit further downstream, beyond the small area in which NOAA looked, elevated metals levels have been documented by other studies. Why didn't NOAA test there? Well, they say, if they had found a hotspot further away from the rusting MARAD ships, they would not know its source. That hotspot might be caused by any of the Bay's many polluters.
A degree of common sense is required here. There does not really seem to be a dispute that paint - lots of paint - is falling off these ships into the Bay. There also does not seem to be much dispute that the paint is toxic - it exceeds California's hazardous waste levels. That's a problem, and it needs to stop. That's why NRDC sued. Nothing in NOAA's study affects NRDC's suit because our suit doesn't seek to cleanup sediment under the ships. Instead, our suit seeks to stop the ongoing pollution, regardless where the pollution ends up. And that's as good an idea now as it was before NOAA's report.