Today the U.S. Department of Transportation and U.S. Maritime Administration (MARAD) announced that two vessels from the Suisun Bay Reserve Fleet will, at long last, be removed for disposal. This is good news. The marine paint on these two inoperable World War II-era hulks is so thick with toxic heavy metals that it is considered hazardous waste. This hazardous paint is peeling off. Some lies scattered on the vessels' decks, waiting to be blown or to fall into the waters of Suisun Bay. Much of this hazardous waste has already fallen off. MARAD now plans to tow these two vessels to dry dock for cleaning and then to a scrap yard for disposal, measures that MARAD claimed for years were impossible. All Californians - the millions who live near and cherish the Bay, the tens of millions who drink water pumped from the Bay-Delta estuary - can cheer, a little, that MARAD is finally moving to dispose of these two obsolete ships before they cause further harm to a deeply imperiled ecosystem.
**Paint peeling from the Rider Victory, one of the vessels MARAD is not removing**
Yet once these two ships are towed away, 55 ships will remain to be disposed. Each of those 55 ships is coated with toxic paint. Much of that paint is peeling - or has peeled - off, putting poisons in local waterways. How bad is this problem? In 2000, the Department of Transportation's Inspector General reported that MARAD's non-retention ships "are literally rotting and disintegrating" into the water. In 2007, a MARAD-commissioned analysis concluded that forty of the ships had already lost about twenty tons of lead, zinc, copper, and chromium into the environment. And in 1997, MARAD staff reported that, "If no action is taken, the ships will continue to age and corrode and ultimately may sink."
The pollution from and on these ships violates federal and state water pollution and hazardous waste laws. MARAD knows this. NRDC, Arc Ecology, and Baykeeper - ultimately joined by the State of California - sued MARAD over these violations two years ago. A court hearing is scheduled for Nov. 9. Today's announcement by MARAD comes more than twelve years after MARAD learned of the pollution problem in Suisun Bay, two years after MARAD was sued - and on the eve of that hearing.
Despite today's welcome announcement, MARAD has not yet committed to a concrete and enforceable timetable for cleaning and removing the remaining ships and has not stopped the ongoing pollution. Every day that goes by without an aggressive and comprehensive effort to clean the vessels is another day where paint full of lead and other metals continues to poison the ecosystem. That's a problem that needs to stop. San Francisco Bay cannot remain a dumping ground for toxic waste.