A lot of folks in the Bay Area know the “mothball fleet.” You can spot the aging Navy and merchant vessels as you drive over the Benicia bridge (check out our Google Map here to see the fleet). Most of them are waiting to be recycled – and they’ve been waiting for quite some time.

As I talk about in Monday’s radio story, a lawsuit over these ships was finally settled this week. At issue was the paint flaking off the hulls of the ships.  After so many  years, it’s weathered and fallen into Suisun Bay. That’s a problem because the paint contains toxic metals like lead, cadmium, and copper. A study in 2007 found that more than 20 tons of these metals had fallen into the bay, which is a critical habitat for some endangered species.

The fleet, managed by the US Maritime Administration (MARAD), is meant to be a temporary holding ground for these ships, but a stalemate in recent years made it a bit more permanent. Since the closest ship recycling facility is in Brownsville, Texas, the ships must be towed there through the Panama Canal. But before they leave the bay, the marine growth on the hulls has to be removed to prevent the spread of invasive species. As we reported in a QUEST TV story a few years ago, MARAD wanted to do that cleaning in Suisun Bay.  The San Francisco Bay Water Quality Control Board ruled that method would release even more pollution.

Two things have happened in the meantime. First, in January, a judge ruled that the fleet was in violation of the Clean Water Act. Second, a new administration entered the White House.  As several people I spoke to mentioned, it lead to a noticeable thawing in relations.  As a sign of that, MARAD began moving a few ships out for recycling last fall.

The worst polluting ships will be removed by the fall of 2012, with all 52 ships under the settlement removed by 2017. (For more on the settlement, check out this blog post by NRDC’s attorney Michael Wall). Where they’ll be recycled is another issue. Instead of having the ships go to Texas, many would like to see them recycled here in the Bay Area. One company is currently working to open two dry docks on Mare Island in Vallejo. But since it’s a former Naval facility, they’re having some trouble getting permitted. In the meantime, the only work going on in the Bay Area will be the hull cleaning. Check out the slideshow below for more on that.

Listen to the Ghost Fleet On the Move radio report online.

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Reporter’s Notes: Ghost Fleet On The Move 2 October,2015Lauren Sommer

  • Suzy

    Thanks for your great reporting ! We offer tours that educate people to sustainability in action, a sort of experiential seminar on wheels. I use a lot of your great reporting to post on our http://www.ebgt.org/BLOG

    Here in the nation’s environmental epicenter, you’d be surprised how many people are unaware of what is happening (good & bad) right here in our home! We need great reporting like yours, so carry on and we will too ! Come take a TOUR with us sometime, you’ll love it !
    Green thanks & Green love,


Lauren Sommer

Lauren is a radio reporter covering environment, water, and energy for KQED Science. As part of her day job, she has scaled Sierra Nevada peaks, run from charging elephant seals, and desperately tried to get her sea legs – all in pursuit of good radio. Her work has appeared on Marketplace, Living on Earth, Science Friday and NPR’s Morning Edition and All Things Considered. You can find her on Twitter at @lesommer.

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