State Could Require Permits for Suisun Bay Ship Cleaning

Tuesday, November 28, 2006
California water quality regulators are close to ordering the U.S. Maritime Administration to obtain state permits and monitor for pollution when it cleans the hulls of obsolete ships from the Suisun Bay Reserve Fleet, government documents show. State regulators became involved in August that hull cleaning was occurring in Richmond without notice to state and local authorities and a later report that government documents show the work left metals and lead paint in the Bay. Now, new documents show that Maritime Administration officials ignored state requests to observe the cleaning last month of another ship in Alameda. No final regional water board decision has been made on whether to regulate the hull cleanings. Formal action would require a 30-day comment period preceding a public hearing and a vote of the board's members. The board is one of eight such bodies that regulate water quality and usage in California.

Four World War II Victory ships have been cleaned this year in Richmond and Alameda prior to being towed to Texas scrapping yards. The work was done under a Coast Guard order issued in June that marine growth be removed from the hulls below the water line to lessen the chance of spreading non-native species to other waters. Complicating matters, the ships are old, and many have been mothballed in Suisun Bay for decades, allowing their hulls to be overwhelmed by barnacles, seaweed and decaying metal. Active ships undergo cleaning, usually in dry dock during routine repairs, roughly every five years.

The large amount of growth and the Suisun ships' aging hulls combine to make them difficult to clean without discharging metals into the Bay. Nonabrasive scrubbers are supposed to be used to reduce the potential of scraping metals into the water. When a Victory ship was cleaned in Richmond in August, sheets of decayed metals, paint and hull coatings more than a third of an inch thick peeled off the hull and were left in the water, according to a report prepared by the contractor that performed the work. The Times obtained the report from the Coast Guard under a Freedom of Information Act request. If the board does require a permit, it is likely it would be for the administration's overall ship-cleaning program in order to create a consistent and uniform process of monitoring for pollution, Bruhns said. The Maritime Administration plans to remove as many as 50 decrepit ships from Suisun Bay in the next few years as it struggles with an already-expired congressional deadline to dispose of obsolete vessels. Under the current Coast Guard order, each of those ships would have to be cleaned, a process unlikely to involve dry docking because the vessels are so old they could be damaged in the process. Instead, divers now clean the ships with scrubbers. It is that process, known as scamping, that concerns environmentalists and board officials because hull material can come off with marine growth and stay in the water. Maritime Administration officials insist that the process doesn't harm the environment.

But state records made available under the state Public Records Act show the Maritime Administration was largely uncooperative when another ship was cleaned last month at a federal dock in Alameda near the USS Hornet. Water board engineers wanted to observe the work to help them determine whether to require permits for further cleanings, but the administration proceeded without them. At a meeting in Oakland last month, administration officials argued that there are no toxins on the hulls that can be left in the water and that the heavy marine growth on the hulls is evidence of that. MarAd has announced plans to next remove two more ships from the Suisun fleet and send them to Texas for scrapping. Source: Contra Costa Times

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