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April 1, 2010

MARAD to remove remaining Suisun Bay "ghost ships"

A long running "toxic ships" battle looks to be coming to a close. The federal government announced today that it would remove the remaining 52 ships that currently sit in the Suisun Bay as part of an agreement with environmental groups that was filed in federal court in Sacramento, Calif., the Department of Justice and Department of Transportation announced today.

The Department of Transportation's Maritime Administration (MARAD) has already begun removing obsolete ships from Suisun Bay for recycling including four ships that have been removed since November 2009 and a fifth that was removed today.

The agreement outlines MARAD's commitment to remove 20 of the ships that are in the poorest condition prior to Sept. 30, 2012. Before their removal, these ships will be sent to a local dry-dock for cleaning that involves removing marine growth from the underwater hull and removing flaking paint from areas above the water. All other ships at the site will be cleaned of flaking paint within two years and removed from the fleet by Sept. 30, 2017.

Additionally, MARAD will clean the horizontal surfaces of the ships every 90 days to prevent peeling paint from dropping into the water, inspect the ships on a monthly and quarterly basis and collect water runoff samples for testing. No new ships with excess flaking will be admitted to the site.

"This agreement is evidence of the Obama Administration's pledge to work with our local partners toward a common goal of better protecting the environment," said U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood.

"The Department of Justice is pleased to have negotiated a resolution of this matter that is good for the environment and a demonstration of effective state and federal cooperation," said Ignacia S. Moreno, Assistant Attorney General for the Justice Department's Environment and Natural Resources Division. "All the parties are to be commended for developing a comprehensive program for the management of the Suisun Bay Reserve Fleet."

"We are following through on our commitment to clean and maintain these vessels in an environmentally sound manner," said David Matsuda, Acting Administrator of the USDOT's Maritime Administration, the agency tasked with managing the fleet. "We are moving expeditiously to remove the worst-polluting ships first and diligently moving to clean the rest."

The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) says that the settlement agreement -- which must be approved by the Court -- resolves a long-running legal battle between MARAD and the NRDC, Arc Ecology, San Francisco Baykeeper, and the San Francisco Bay Regional Water Quality Control Board.

Under the settlement, which must be approved by the Court, MARAD will permanently remove all of the obsolete vessels for disposal by September 2017, starting with the worst ships first. More immediately, MARAD will get rid of the piles of hazardous paint chips from vessel decks within 120 days and, by September of next year, clean all peeling paint from the exteriors of the 25 worst ships while in dry dock.

More than 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. If not cleaned up, the vessels were projected to lose as much as an additional 50 tons of heavy metals in future years, as they succumbed to time and weather.

The environmental groups sued in 2007 to force MARAD to halt the discharge of toxic heavy metals and to clean up the vessels, which are moored near Benicia. The Regional Water Board joined the suit a year later. In January, Judge Garland Burrell sided with the plaintiffs and ruled that the decaying ships are illegally polluting the Bay.

Suisun Bay is critical habitat for several endangered and threatened species, 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 levels. The Ghost Fleet is moored in Suisun Bay, which is just west and downstream of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.


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