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Friday, July 6, 2007 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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For retired military ships ... one last battle

The Associated Press

Risky chips

A report commissioned by the federal Maritime Administration indicates that paint chipping off ships in the Suisun Bay Reserve Fleet contains concentrations of toxic metals that exceed California's standards for hazardous waste. The metals:

Barium: A soft, silvery metal sometimes used in rat poison and heavily used in the petroleum industry. It affects the nervous system and heart, and causes tremors, weakness and paralysis.

Cadmium: A highly toxic metal found in paints. Cadmium is a carcinogen.

Chromium: A steel-gray, hard metal used in dyes and pigments and in making steel. It can cause nosebleeds, and ulcers and holes in the nasal septum. Studies have shown increased exposure raises the likelihood of lung cancer.

Copper: A reddish-brown corrosion-resistant metal, it is used as an electrical and thermal conductor and can be found in paints. Copper can cause vomiting, diarrhea, stomach cramps and nausea.

Lead: A highly toxic, silvery-gray metal with widespread industrial uses. It is considered omnipresent in the environment and is essentially indestructible. It was used in paint for most of the 20th century, creating a major public-health threat. Exposure can cause nerve and reproductive disorders, cognitive and behavioral disorders, hypertension and anemia.

Mercury: A heavy silver metal that is one of five elements liquid at room temperature. It is used in thermometers and other scientific instruments. It is stored in the muscle tissues of fish and easily works its way up the food chain.

Zinc: A bluish-white metal brittle at ordinary temperatures and malleable when heated. Health effects from overexposure can include eye, throat, nose and skin irritation, and lung damage.

Source: The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health and the Reporters Environmental Handbook

Contra Costa Times

BENICIA, Calif. — From afar, the ghostly warships recall a fierce phalanx ready for battle. A closer look shows the rust and rot of ships unfit for duty or even dismantling, a quandary costing taxpayers millions of dollars and one that could cause environmental misery that will cost millions more.

This is the Suisun Bay Reserve Fleet, a collection of troop transports, tankers and other vessels dating to World War II, Korea and Vietnam.

Before they can be scrapped and sold, Coast Guard regulations require the removal of the barnacles and other sea creatures clinging to their hulls. That process causes toxic paint to flake off into the water, and fear of contamination has halted ship disposal in California and delayed it in the country's other "mothball fleets" in Texas and Virginia.

"The fleet has devolved from these historic and wonderful vessels into basically a floating junkyard," said Saul Bloom of Arc Ecology, a San Francisco environmental group working to make the ghost ships disappear. "While they're sitting there, they continue to pollute."

After World War II, the military designated several sites for ships withdrawn from active military service, among them Suisun Bay, east of San Francisco Bay. For several decades, many stood ready to be called back to duty. But over time, most of the vessels have become too decrepit to justify the cost of repairs.

On the troop ship Gen. Edwin D. Patrick, the wooden deck has turned black with rot and grass grows through the cracks. Seabirds roost where soldiers once waited to go to war, and peeling paint exposes vast expanses of rust.

"There's really very little you can do to maintain a ship like this," said Sean Connaughton, head of the U.S. Maritime Administration during a recent tour of the fleet.

As a result, the Patrick and 53 other ships of the 74 in the Suisun Bay fleet are scheduled to be chopped up for scrap. About 140 of the 190 in all three fleets are destined for disposal.

The Maritime Administration sets aside about $1.2 million a ship for the dismantling program, though some of that can be recovered by selling the scrap metal.

By comparison, the federal government spends about $20 million a year to maintain the three reserve fleets. But agency officials say the potential cost of environmental damage caused by aging ships crumbling and sinking into the bay could dwarf the expense of the dismantling program.

Under a congressional order, the Maritime Administration had a 2006 deadline to dismantle ships in reserve fleets classified as no longer useful. That hasn't happened. Maritime officials blame a lack of funding and a shortage of facilities able to perform the messy task of taking the massive ships apart. But recently, the more vexing environmental problem has emerged.

Owing to a lack of proper facilities on the West Coast, California ships headed for the scrap heap must be towed through the Panama Canal to Brownsville, Texas, center of shipbreaking operations in the United States.

But on these towering hulks, thriving ecosystems cluster beneath the waterline. Millions of microscopic invertebrates in mosslike colonies several inches thick shelter barnacles, clams and tiny crustaceans.

Some of these organisms devastated native San Francisco Bay species that lacked the defenses against the sudden introduction of invaders transported from overseas. Hauling the uncleaned ships to Texas could spread the hazardous creatures even farther.

Last year, divers using devices resembling floor buffers "scamped" several Suisun Bay ships to clean off the unwanted organisms, but tests showed the cleaning was leaving toxic paint in the water.

Until federal officials figure out how to keep the paint from contaminating the bay, California regulators have warned them to stop the cleaning or risk running afoul of state water laws.

The conflicting regulations halted the scrapping of California's mothball fleet and the country's two other reserve fleets in Beaumont, Texas, and on the James River near Newport News, Va.

The discovery of the paint in Suisun Bay had led the Maritime Administration to place a moratorium on ship disposal in all three reserve fleets, though agreements with Virginia and Texas have paved the way for cleaning to resume.

Connaughton said in a letter to state regulators Thursday that he would lift the California moratorium Aug. 1.

But regulators in California, along with environmentalists and members of the state's congressional delegation, find the risk unacceptable.

Bruce Wolfe, executive officer of the San Francisco Bay Regional Water Quality Control Board, said the board wants to discuss tests of a new technique for containing paint scraped off during hull cleaning before allowing the ship disposal to resume.

"We agree with the goal of the ships getting disposed of as quickly as possible," Wolfe said Thursday. "We just want to make sure it's done in an environmentally sensitive manner."

The California regulators cite a February study commissioned by the Maritime Administration suggesting paint is flaking off the ships on its own and dumping more than 21 tons of copper, lead, zinc and other metals into the ecologically sensitive estuary.

Maritime Administration officials play down the environmental threat, saying heavy metals are found in sediments throughout the bay. The hulls of even the most rickety vessels are secure, according to fleet managers.

If any ships do go down, they would deposit not only paint but PCBs, fuel oil and other pollutants in wildlife-rich waters.

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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