Fate of Aging 'Mothball Fleet' Snared in Red Tape

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A decaying flotilla of retired naval and merchant ships is wasting away in a shallow California bay. The ships make up what's now known as the Suisun Bay "mothball fleet." A bureaucratic battle rages over how to get rid of the ships while protecting waterways from toxins.


This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm James Hattori.

A decaying flotilla of retired naval and merchant ships is wasting away in a shallow California bay. The ships make up what's now known as the Suisun Bay Mothball Fleet. The ship's place in history is beyond dispute, but their future is very much in contention. They seemed to be anchored in a sea of bureaucracy.

Craig Miller has our story.

CRAIG MILLER: The boat trip out to the ghost fleet of Suisun Bay is a short excursion through a lot of history. In this wide spot in the Sacramento River, northeast of San Francisco, 74 retired ships lie at anchor and tight ropes, some a dozen across. A few were fighting ships. The legendary World War II battleship Iowa is here waiting for some place to claim it as a naval museum. But most of these ships did their service as support vessels, freighters and troop ships.

Known officially as the National Defense Reserve Fleet, these ships were mothballed here in case they might be needed in the next war or national emergency. But most of them are far beyond that ambition.

They sit here linked together by creaking gangways in the kind of rusty limbo under the care of the National Maritime Administration also known as MARAD.

Henry Ryan(ph) served on one of these ships, a tanker in the late '60s. Now, he works for MARAD.

Mr. HENRY RYAN (Employee, United States Maritime Administration): It's a little bit of nostalgia thinking of all the mariners and sailors that have been on those ships. And now the ships are coming to the end of their life or most of them are. It's a little bit sad.

MILLER: At the top of a long gangway is the General Edwin Patrick. The World War II troop ship has been sitting here since 1968. Its solid grey paint job has given way to a zebra pattern of rust, grasses growing around the gunnels, and this is not how walking on the deck of a transport ship is supposed to sound.

The Patrick is the first ship that MARAD intends to tow out of here all the way to the Gulf Coast, the nearest U.S. facility for ship dismantling. But none of these ships are going anywhere yet. Even the worst of them are stuck here, caught in a quagmire of conflicting state and federal regulations. For that, Sean Connaughton is under fire. He's head of the Maritime Administration.

Mr. SEAN CONNAUGHTON (Administrator, United States Maritime Administration): I think the things that we're all facing is that this is a new one for all of us. And I think what we're trying to do is put square regulatory programs into round holes.

MILLER: Recently, a few ships were removed from the mothball fleet in Virginia's James River. But here in Suisun Bay, efforts have run aground. Federal regulations intended to stop the spread of invasive marine organisms won't allow the ships to go anywhere until the halls are clean, but that isn't happening because state water authorities are concerned that cleaning the halls will pollute the bay.

Mr. BRUCE WOLF (Executive Director, San Francisco Regional Water Quality Control Board): These ships are old, the materials that are in the paints in the whole material basically is considered hazardous waste.

MILLER: Bruce Wolf is executive director of the Regional Water Quality Board.

Mr. WOLF: These are pollutants we don't want in the bay. So we're trying to control as much as possible any of this and at this point, there have not been any controls.

MILLER: The consultant's report earlier this year concluded that the ghost fleet has shed tons of toxic metals like lead, copper and zinc into the bay, turning up the heat on MARAD to move them out. It's already tested a new kind of vacuum, scamping as it's called, in which the halls are scrubbed and the material sucked into a filter or snagged by a kind of ship diaper slung underneath the hall.

But California's water board says the test did not yield enough data. MARAD's Sean Connaughton.

Mr. CONNAUGHTON: There are requests for data. Well we don't have the data because we've never, again, had to deal with this. We're trying to come up with what the standard should be, but we don't know what the standards are because we don't know exactly what the impact from the environment are.

MILLER: Reportedly, MARAD is now looking at reviving some of the bay area's long idle dry docks to lift the ships out of the water for cleaning. The water board's Bruce Wolf says that if all the issues are ironed out quickly, the first ships could be towed out of Suisun Bay by Thanksgiving. If not…

Mr. WOLF: Well, do you want a ship in your front yard? We might be able to arrange that.

MILLER: For NPR News, I'm Craig Miller.

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