Giving up the ghost fleet

In California, rusting US navy ships that were poisoning bay waters for decades are being cleaned up, moved and recycled – thanks to a legal victory by local environmental groups. Jan McGirk reports.

It’s clear that the health risks from a fleet of decrepit US navy troop ships and tankers, moored for nearly half a century in the shallow backwaters of San Francisco Bay, are being taken seriously at last. Before I am allowed to board any of the rusty warships — which have been oozing oil, asbestos, dioxins, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and tonnes of heavy metals into the upper part of the bay for decades — US officials insist that I sign a liability waiver. Afterwards, they warn me not to touch my eyes or consume any food until I undergo a thorough scrub.

Fifty-two of these Second World War-era vessels are finally being hauled away, one by one, from Suisun Bay after northern Californian environmentalists sued the Maritime Administration (MARAD) — part of the US transportation department — for violating the country’s Clean Water Act and for illegally storing hazardous waste aboard the ships.

Even though government officials had known since at least 1997 about the dangers of pollution from the disintegrating ships, it took a milestone lawsuit, filed by three environmental watchdog groups and the regional water board, to improve maintenance and hasten the ships’ removal from a tidal marsh at the mouth of the Sacramento River delta. A settlement was reached in late March 2010, four years after the final deadline set by the US congress for removing the military vessels, formally known as the Suisun Bay Reserve Fleet. US district court judge Garland Burrell ordered most of the ships to be scrapped, and it’s an enormous task. Indeed, getting rid of defunct warships is a problem facing all nations with great navies, including China.

The ships in Suisan Bay usually loom up like a spectral flotilla in the dense tule fog beyond the Carquinez Strait bridge, but up close bright spring sunshine reveals the rot. Most of the vessels have been idle since the 1960s, waiting to be renovated for war duty. Some have been cannibalised for spare parts. The majority are beyond repair.

Half a dozen buzzards circle high overhead as I mount a gangway to reach the tainted anchorage of the ghost fleet. I clamber over the dilapidated decks with MARAD’s project manager, Joe Pecoraro, who recently adapted low-tech methods, such as using crushed walnut shell wattles – simple organic filters — to help staunch toxic discharges into the bay during storms. “We’re working our way across the rows [of ships],” Pecoraro said. “And the worst go first.”

The district court has ordered an inspection of the rotting vessels every 90 days. Lubricant and coolant leaks get detected and fixed, and water-pollution levels are sampled frequently. Loose paint chips are swept off all the ships’ decks, and so far debris weighing about 125 short tons (113 metric tonnes) has been sealed in 55-gallon (just over 200-litre) drums and labeled hazardous waste. These are destined for treatment at California’s Kettleman Hills hazardous waste facility, a controversial plant investigated after a spike in birth defects was detected nearby. Some toxic waste will also be sent to the states of Utah or Nevada.

Aboard the toxic ships, big birds of prey nest and snatch fish from the brackish waters. “We manage osprey tenancy, too,” Pecoraro said, pointing out a heap of twigs and guano atop a smokestack. To discourage the ospreys, crews attempt to string nets across likely nesting spots for these protected raptors with two-metre wing spans. “We cannot touch the nests once the birds have laid eggs, so then we call in US Fish and Wildlife officials to handle them,” he said. Owls, seagulls and pigeons also make messy forays onto the ships and are affected by the pollutants.

Seven ships from the fleet already have been scoured of poisonous paint chips and invasive parasites like barnacles, which might upset the ecological balance when towed elsewhere. Ballast water, too, is checked for contaminants. These vessels will go through the Panama Canal on a 45-day voyage to oblivion, ending up in a south Texan scrapyard along the coast of the Gulf of Mexico. “Sending them down to the docks in Brownsville, where trenches are dug into the channel and there is little environmental control, is far from ideal,” noted one environmental lawyer. “But it’s a start.”

The plaintiffs in the lawsuit — the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC), Arc Ecology, San Francisco Baykeeper, and the San Francisco Bay Regional Water Quality Control Board — argued that by eliminating the ships now, the bay can be spared a further 50 short tons (45 tonnes) of toxins. At least 20 tons (18 tonnes) of mercury, lead, zinc and copper have leached from the fleet into the spawning grounds for chinook salmon and delta shrimp. Tidal surges have dispersed this pollution around the San Francisco Bay, which already contains excessive mercury levels due to heedless mining practices dating back to California’s 1949 Gold Rush. Bay seafood is no longer sold on the retail market because of contamination, although thousands of sport fishermen regularly cook up their catch for friends and families.

“It is high time that the federal government removes all the rotting ships from the waters of Suisun Bay,” declared Barbara Boxer, one of California’s two US senators, after the settlement was reached. “They are polluting our water and endangering public health.”

A worker scours a corroded military vessel. Photo by Jan McGirk

Saul Bloom, Arc Ecology’s executive director, said: “MARAD had been doing the minimum possible, just to keep these ships from sinking. Under the previous administration [of George W Bush], they had not been a big believer in compliance, as they were preoccupied with other things. They saw this fleet-recycling as a needless distraction. We had been concerned for many years.”

Bloom’s group runs an innovative programme to combat military pollution and to assess war’s long-term effects on the environment. “I saw the ghost fleet out in the bay 25 years ago,” he said, “but there was no political will ’way back then to do anything. Ship recycling is a dirty, messy business.”

In a San Francisco dry dock, the General John Pope, a transport ship that carried US troops to battle in three wars, is hoisted atop blocks while BAE Systems work crews in protective gear erect a series of barriers to block leakage to the bay and power-hose the decks. Slabs of gritty brown residue, measuring at least five inches (12.7 centimetres) thick, get scraped from the hull, monitored and sorted. Large waste receptacles fill up with organic refuse destined for landfills, while others are crammed with toxic waste. Yet there is considerable nostalgia for this mighty rust bucket. A war veteran, Mike Brown, shows off the ship’s vast dining hall to his son and reminisces about sailing from Okinawa to Vietnam with 3,300 other teenage US army conscripts in 1964. “It’s the end of an era, man,” he muses. “Everything’s changed.”

The ship General John Pope, before heading to a scrapyard.
Photo by Jan McGirk

“We are following through on our commitment to clean and maintain these vessels in an environmentally sound manner,” said MARAD’s acting administrator, David Matsuda. MARAD conceded to scrubbing these ships in dry dock and protecting the San Francisco Bay by removing non-native invasive species, even though some technicians had questioned California’s strict requirements about dealing with these potential environmental hazards. Some contended that since Spanish galleons first entered the bay 240 years ago, myriad parasites have been introduced from foreign waters, so the native habitat already is overrun by invasive species. The new agreement may be slightly more costly, but even more potential recycling revenue was lost because the price of scrap metal dropped while bureaucrats dithered.

The pace of disposal for the mothballed fleet in California seems unhurried: the 25 worst polluters must be hauled away to be dry dock within two and a half years, while the rest won’t be cleared off until September 2017.

“Arc Ecology’s concern is that ships might eventually get towed out to Saipan, a small American protectorate in the Marianas, in order to obtain savings and not run afoul of the trade laws in ship-breaking,” Bloom said. “Well, it is not Bangladesh … We don’t have families living on the site, children under 14 risking their limbs and lungs, and losing on average 10 individuals per vessel. But we’ll have to see about the likelihood that Saipan will comply with our human-rights values and environmental concerns.”

Leases for a ship-disposal yard were granted in March to ship-breakers in Saipan, but no contracts have yet been signed.
Getting rid of these hulks cheaply is difficult. A high-profile campaign by Greenpeace against the appallingly hazardous conditions for labourers who dismantle ships by hand in Bangladesh, India and Pakistan led to a 1998 ban on outsourcing US navy ships to developing countries for scrap. Activists note that when stricter laws have been introduced to protect workers and the environment, the industry moves elsewhere. Ingvild Jenssen of the NGO Platform on Shipbreaking told The Ecologist magazine of “a continuous race-to-the-bottom and we fear that Africa will be the next destination if no measures are introduced”.

China is eager to dominate the ship-breaking industry, and Hong Kong’s chief executive Donald Tsang told the International Maritime Organisation (IMO) last year that around 100,000 Chinese workers earn their living through ship recycling. According to a report in The Edge, a Singapore investment magazine, a new government subsidy for ship breakers who qualify for a “green licence” can add up to eight percentage points to a Chinese company’s profit margin.

The potential loss of business to China may have panicked the Bangladeshis, who had led the world’s ship-breaking business for years. Authorities in Dhaka amended their laws in April, no longer requiring certificates from environmental authorities in exporting nations to assure Bangladesh that incoming vessels were free of toxic substances. Green activists denounced the decision as “suicidal” and worried about exposing workers to contaminants causing cancer, tuberculosis and asthma, and further poisoning the environment.

In May, however, Bangladesh’s high court restored the previous directives. Responding to a petition by the Bangladesh Environmental Lawyers Association (BELA), the court ruled that no ship can be imported for breaking without certification of non-toxicity from the exporting country.

Ecologists in the United States acknowledge the challenges of greener ship-recycling. But they tend to frown on other options, such as the US navy’s SINKEX Program, which uses old vessels for live-fire training exercises that send them to the ocean floor. MARAD also scuttles ships for use as artificial reefs, restores notable vessels as floating museums, or refurbishes them for non-profit humanitarian missions.

“There’s a lot of work to be done,” said Michael Wall, a lawyer with the National Resources Defense Council. “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. We know, through internal memos and e-mails, that the Maritime Administration had been aware of the problem for more than a decade. So recognition of the problem and addressing it makes us hopeful. They have changed and corrected their practices before they cause further harm to a deeply imperiled ecosystem.”

It’s a lesson for other countries, too: concerned citizens can bring pressure to bear on their governments and safeguard the sea through the courts.

Jan McGirk is a former correspondent for The Independent (UK) who has reported on environmental issues and disasters in Asia, Latin America and the Middle East.

Homepage photo, capturing the Suisun Bay Reserve Fleet’s faded glory, by Amy Miller