Federal Judge Finds San Francisco Bay's Ghost Fleet Pollution Illegal

Court rules that federal government is illegally polluting the Bay from decaying ships

SAN FRANCISCO, CA (January 21, 2010) -- The Maritime Administration (MARAD), a federal agency responsible for San Francisco Bay’s ghost fleet, is illegally polluting and storing hazardous waste in the Bay, according to a federal court’s ruling today.

Judge Garland Burrell’s ruling handed a major victory to environmental groups Natural Resources Defense Council, Arc Ecology and San Francisco Baykeeper, the original plaintiffs in the case, and to the San Francisco Bay Regional Water Quality Control Board, which joined the suit after it had been filed. The environmental groups sued MARAD, an agency of the U.S. Department of Transportation, in 2007 to force it to stop discharging toxic heavy metals into San Francisco‘s Suisun Bay and to clean up more than 50 large ships abandoned and decaying in the Suisun Bay Reserve Fleet site, near Benicia.

An estimated 20 tons of heavy metals -- including lead, zinc, copper and cadmium -- have already fallen, blown or washed off the ships into the water, according to a MARAD-commissioned analysis. Projections indicated that the vessels would lose as much as an additional 50 tons of heavy metals in future years, as they succumbed to time and weather, unless cleaned up.

Internal communications and testimony obtained by the environmental groups through the lawsuit show that MARAD has known about the problem for more than a decade. Yet the agency never stopped the illegal pollution and repeatedly ignored several acts of Congress requiring disposal of the ships

Suisun Bay, located in northern San Francisco Bay near the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, is critical habitat for several species of endangered fish -- including Chinook salmon and delta smelt. The State of California has warned residents to limit consumption of fish caught in Suisun Bay, due to pollution.

The case is poised to go to trial in June to determine the scope of the clean-up and removal measures. The plaintiffs are seeking removal of the peeling, toxic paint and permanent disposal of all the ships. In response to the litigation, MARAD recently removed two ships to be scrapped, cleaning them in the drydock for the first time ever, and has begun removing some of the peeled paint from remaining ships. However, most of the ships and pollution remain.

Following is a statement by Michael Wall, senior attorney with NRDC:

“This ruling is a huge victory for San Francisco Bay, its wildlife, and the people of California. Sometimes the government acts as if it is above the law. This ruling shows the power of law in hands of citizens to protect their communities and environment from illegal pollution.”

Following is a statement by Jason Flanders, staff attorney with San Francisco Baykeeper:

“The Court’s ruling is clear: each of the ghost fleet ships decaying in Suisun Bay violates our clean water and hazardous waste laws. We can’t allow these vessels to contaminate the Bay for another ten or twenty years. MARAD must clean and remove each vessel from Suisun Bay as quickly and safely as possible.”

Following is a statement by Saul Bloom, executive director of Arc Ecology:

“We are pleased and grateful for today’s court ruling. The federal government is one of the world’s most significant sources of pollution. The Suisun Bay Fleet is but one small example of the enormity of the problem. San Francisco Bay is wrung by more than a dozen sources of federal toxic pollution, many of which are proposed to be left in place to contaminate our fish and affect our environment and public health for generations to come. This victory proves that in a democracy not even the government of the nation is above the law. We will be pressing onward to ensure that at least this source of contamination to our Bay is stopped.”

Following is a statement from Bruce Wolfe, Executive Officer, San Francisco Bay Regional Water Quality Control Board:

“California should not have to sue the federal government to prevent massive and illegal contamination of San Francisco Bay. This ruling underscores the need for MARAD to move quickly to implement a comprehensive and enforceable solution for all its ships and to stop its ongoing violations.”

Close-up photos and B-roll video of the ships are available at: http://www.vimeo.com/nrdcbroadcast/videos

Read Michael Wall’s blog about today’s ruling at: