State wants assurance from Maritime Administration that ships won't pollute Suisun Bay when cleaned
Dispute on deck as four U.S. ships set to be towed State wants assurance that ships won't pollute Suisun Bay when cleaned By Thomas Peele, STAFF WRITER
Inside Bay Area
Article Last Updated:08/17/2007 09:04:48 AM PDT A confrontation between state and federal agencies is brewing as the U.S. Maritime Administration prepares to tow out to sea four decrepit ships anchored in Suisun Bay and state clean water regulators consider stopping it unless pollution concerns are addressed.
The ships are part of the decaying "mothball fleet" of 74 vessels east of the Benicia Bridge that are harboring organic growth on their hulls under water and tons of toxic, peeling paint on their structures above the waterline.
The Maritime Administration wants to clean the underwater portions of the hulls in Alameda and then tow the ships to Texas, where they will be cut up for scrap. The San Francisco Bay Area Water Quality Control Board wants assurances that the hull cleaning will not pollute the water and insists that the Maritime Administration clean the toxic paint above the waterline before the vessels are moved.
"We can't be put in a situation where we know (vessels are) discharging paint into the water. They will have to take the worst of it off," David Elias, an engineering geologist with the water quality control board, said this week.
MediaNews reported in June that federal documents show the flaking paint presents a significant environmental threat. Last month the water board asked the Maritime Administration for a plan on how it will clean up the paint. The administration has never cleaned a ship above its waterline before removing it from the fleet.
The administration responded Aug. 6 with a one-page letter calling for further review. The letter did not say when a work plan would be submitted.
Elias said that is not sufficient. "We didn't find that it was responsive," he said.
Meanwhile, bid documents show the administration is moving forward with plans to dispose of the four World War II ships. Bids for moving the ships are due at the end of the month, and it would appear the removal of the vessels from local waters is planned before a clean-up plan is given to the water board.
Elias said the board would have no choice but to attempt to block movement of those ships if the paint on them is not first cleaned up. "That's what the work plan is for, to (address) the paint," he said.
In the request for that plan, board Executive Officer Bruce Wolfe wrote that it is clear the shedding paint is a violation of the federal Clean Water Act, which the board enforces.
It was unclear this week how the administration would respond or how a confrontation between the two agencies would play out.
Maritime Administration spokeswoman Shannon Russell and Administrator Sean Connaughton would not take questions on the matter Tuesday. Russell wrote in an e-mail that no response from the water board to the administration's Aug. 6 letter had been received, and she would not comment. She pointed out that Connaughton recently told California regulators that ship disposal would resume unless they raised objections.
There is little doubt that the ships would shed toxic paint as they are towed out the Golden Gate, south to the Panama Canal and then through the Caribbean and the Gulf of Mexico to Texas, said Ray Lovett, a ship recycling expert who has reviewed the documents describing the peeling and chipping paint.
It's inevitable that paint would fall into the ocean, he said. On some ships, paint chips lay loose on the decks like dried leaves.
"If a wave hits it, some of it will fall. It's going to happen," Lovett said. As for a possible showdown between the two agencies, he said, "It's a question of who blinks first."
The four ships include the Gen. Patrick, a former troop carrier. When Connaughton, the maritime administrator, visited Suisun Bay in June, he called the vessel the worst in the fleet and said it would be the first one removed. It is heavily decayed, with paint falling from its hull and superstructure and weeds sprouting through its wooden decks.
Connaughton said in June that a plan to clean up the paint would be shared with the state. But he also made it clear he did not want remediation plans to get in the way of removing ships for scrapping.
Saul Bloom of the San Francisco environmental group Arc Ecology said the matter could end up in court.
"The Maritime Administration has been involved in unwise environmental practices for a number of years," Bloom said. "It is time for (it) to come into compliance with the environmental laws of the last half century."
The bid specifications for moving the four ships do call for underwater hull cleaning at Maritime Administration docks in Alameda. That work is to comply with U.S. Coast Guard regulations that organic growth be removed from the vessels.
But that issue also remains fraught with problems. The state water board wants to make sure that the hull cleaning does not cause pollution. When two ship hulls were cleaned in Richmond last year, metals came off in large sheets and were left in the water.
That situation eventually resulted in Connaughton suspending the ship recycling program while tests were done on a system to collect the materials removed during the hull cleaning. Test results were given to the water board earlier this month, but Elias said they lack details about how much of the material removed was captured.
"We want to know how much went into the filter bag and how much escaped," Elias said. "They didn't tell us that."
The city of Alameda has also entered the debate over the hull cleaning. It leases the former Navy docks where the work would take place.
The development director, Leslie A. Little, said Tuesday the city is awaiting a response.
Thomas Peele is an investigative reporter. reach him at Tpeele@... or 925-977-8463.