Tuesday, May 23, 2006

 

Obsolete fleet hardly shipshape, called environmental `time bomb'

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The Kansas City Star
By Thomas Peele
May. 19, 2006


WALNUT CREEK, Calif. - Obsolete ships anchored in Suisun Bay have decayed so much that the U.S. government sometimes pays more to scrap just one of them than it spends in a year to maintain the entire fleet, federal documents show.

Hazardous materials including asbestos, PCBs, lead paint, mercury, chromates, toxic tin and arsenic are omnipresent in the fleet.

What makes the ships expensive to get rid of also makes them dangerous. The vessels, many of them World War II relics, must be made safe enough to stay afloat for the 45-day tow to Texas scrapping yards.

One environmentalist called the fleet a "ticking time bomb." An engineer familiar with the ships questioned whether some of them can survive the trip to Texas.

U.S. Maritime Administration officials insisted the ships are safe, but for more than a year, they have stalled release of hull testing data the Contra Costa Times requested under the Freedom of Information Act.

That data is critical to assessing a ship's stability, engineers said. Some obsolete ships in the national inventory have hulls so weak that a hammer blow could rupture them, a federal report states.

But none of the ships in California waters is that weak, the acting director of the U.S. Maritime Administration and other bureaucrats insisted last Friday. They had come from Washington, D.C., to lead a tour of the vessels.

They spoke as they crunched through piles of lead-laced paint chips that had flaked from badly rusting walls.

"Not one ship has sunk," said administration spokeswoman Shannon Russell. She and others insisted the vessels are strong enough to survive the 5,000-mile trip to Texas.

The ships are "an immediate environmental threat," U.S. Department of Transportation investigators found nearly six years ago. Since then, the ships have decayed further, environmentalists and ship engineers said.

"Every day, they get worse," said Raymond J. Lovett. "Suisun Bay is the next problem waiting to happen." Lovett is the technical director of Ship Recycling Institute in Philadelphia and a chemist who specializes in hazardous materials.

"The condition of some of the ships is pitiful," he said.

The fleet continues to "pose potentially costly environmental threats to the waterways ... where (they) are stored," states a congressional report released last year.

After bumbling for decades and missing congressional deadlines to scrap reserve fleets in California, Virginia and Texas, the U.S. Maritime administration is attempting to accelerate its ship disposal. The agency is a branch of the federal transportation department that maintains National Defense Reserve Fleets.

Now, the vessels have decayed so badly that it is costing more than $1 million each to send some of them to scrapping yards, and environmentalists and engineers worry about ecological disasters.

The last five scrapped Suisun fleet ships cost $4.97 million to make them seaworthy enough to tow to Texas scrapping yards. The Wabash, a World War II tanker, cost $1.4 million. The administration budgeted $1.2 million in fiscal 2006 to maintain the Suisun fleet.

Seven more ships are scheduled for removal from the fleet by the end of the year.

The administration will miss by years a Sept. 30 congressional deadline to get rid of reserve vessels. A 2005 report by a government watchdog agency ripped the administration's inability to manage ship disposal.

Program leaders failed to develop a comprehensive scrapping plan and instead made decisions on a ship-by-ship basis that Government Accountability Office auditors said were overly bureaucratic. The leaders also did not grasp the difficult environmental and legal hurdles facing them.

In a letter to the administration dated May 10, U.S. Reps. Ellen Tauscher and George Miller, both California Democrats, asked for a briefing on the program and its expected failure to meet the Sept. 30 deadline.

Congress did not give the agency enough money to meet the deadline, said the former acting head of the Maritime Administration.

The first priority has been to remove ships in Virginia's James River that are in worse condition than those in California, said John Jamian, who resigned his post May 2. The administration has removed 50 Virginia ships in the past six years.

Jamian said the Suisun fleet "is in pretty good shape," but he did not discuss specifics.

The administration failed to release documents related to more than half the Suisun fleet sought by the Times in a March 2005 Freedom of Information Act request. Those documents would show hull condition and other safety factors. An administration lawyer said the request would take more months to process after the unexplained delay.

The request "fell through the cracks," Russell said

Records show that 57 of the older Suisun vessels contain more than 3.3 million gallons of low-grade fuel oil. Most of it is likely congealed into a tarlike goo.

The still unrevealed hull data is critical to assessing many of the risks of the ships and the oil they carry, Lovett said.

"The older the ship, the thinner the hull," he said. "You have to know specifics."

In addition to not releasing documents, the administration refused for more than a month to allow Times journalists to tour the Suisun fleet. It relented last Friday after Russell and acting administration head Julie A. Nelson flew from Washington to California.

The view from a small boat the group took into the restricted fleet zone revealed several older vessels listing under the weight of water in their hulls and dozens of badly rusted ships covered with thick chips of flaking paint.

The Clamp, a World War II rescue ship, appeared badly decayed. Wood could be seen behind peeled away steel at the waterline. Fleet superintendent Joe Pecoraro said there was steel behind the wood and that the ship was not in danger.

It is "inevitable" that lead paint and possibly other contaminates fall into the bay, said Frank X. Johnston, the administration's western regional director. He said little can be done other than to monitor the ships with flooding alarms and visual checks to make sure they stay afloat.

Maintenance crews use an electrical charge to slow rusting.

As of May 12, 77 ships were anchored in Suisun Bay, according to inventory documents.

Fifty-one of them are in some stage of being readied for disposal, a process that includes reviewing their historical significance.

Twelve belong to the Navy, Coast Guard or government science agencies. The Defense Department holds six in reserve for military use. Six others are held for historic reasons or possible donations as museums.

Only two Suisun ships belong to the Ready Reserve Force, a fleet of cargo ships that can be quickly activated for war or national emergency.

Twenty-seven of the ships sailed in World War II, including the battleship Iowa and the tugboat Hoga, which survived the Pearl Harbor attack. Another 39, mostly merchant marine and military cargo ships, were built between 1950 and 1969. The other 10 were built between 1970 and 1987.

"It's a junkyard out there, a ticking time bomb," said Saul Bloom, director of a San Francisco environmental group, Arc Ecology. He has watched and researched the Suisun fleet for years.

"I have no confidence in (the maritime administration's) processes for being environmentally responsible," Bloom said. A reserve fleet mishap is as inevitable as an earthquake, he said. "It's not a question of if but when."

The administration did release a few documents that show asbestos and polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, on more than 30 Suisun ships. Engineers said it can be safely assumed they are present in nearly all the vessels.

Some of the asbestos has decayed to the point where it is friable - the dustlike stage where it can lodge in the lungs, reports show.

"PCBs are of particular concern" and asbestos is omnipresent, according to a 1994 Halliburton Corporation environmental analysis of obsolete ships.

PCB reports for individual ships showed no leaks, but most of the testing was done 10 to 15 years ago. The toxic materials are in everything from doors to duct tape to cables and transformers, from which they can sweat or leak.

"There are no PCBs leaving the ships. There is no asbestos leaving the ships," Russell said. "The administration is dedicated to the safe disposal of these ships."

The PCB reports show "vast quantities" of the carcinogen, said Chein Kao, an Arc Ecology scientist who analyzed the reports.

"We are talking about a process of decay in the sea environment, like rusting, that occurs more quickly than on land," Kao said. There is "the potential for release with very high concentrations going into the bay."

Five spills have been reported at the Suisun fleet in the past 15 years, the largest being 30 gallons of oil, said Russell, the administration's spokeswoman. All appropriate spill prevention and emergency plans are in place, she said.

Last year, the administration increased the water it removes from the ships and dumps into Benicia's sewer system, pumping out more than 45,000 gallons in July, city records show. City tests on the water before it went into the sewers found no contaminates exceeding safe levels.

The testing showed high levels of sodium. Russell said the water was accumulated rainfall. She wrote in an e-mail that "we do not believe sodium levels in the sewer water are from our ships." The water came directly from the ships and was tested before it went into the sewers.

Lovett said the sodium indicates that bay water could have entered the ships, a sign of hull decay.

"There aren't too many other sources of sodium in the marine environment other than salt water," he said.

The West Coast has no active ship scrapping yards.

That means the vessels must be prepared for a 45-day voyage to Texas through the Panama Canal, a roughly 5,000-mile journey.

Two World War II-era gasoline tankers towed from Suisun Bay to a Texas scrapping yard last year were in such poor shape that engineers who prepared them for the voyage made bets on whether they would sink.

It cost taxpayers more than $2.5 million to dispose of those tankers, the Wabash and Nemasket. At least their steel was recycled. The administration recently spent $2.85 million to remove PCBs and other hazards from three other ships so the Navy can tow them out in the ocean later this year and sink them for target practice.

An engineer familiar with Suisun ships said it is ridiculous for them to be more than 80 percent prepared for recycling only to sink them at a time when the world is struggling to preserve natural resources and steel is selling for as much as $400 a ton. Ships in Suisun range on gross weight from less than 2,000 tons to more than 37,000 tons.

"I have a real problem about seeing steel go to the bottom of the ocean when it can be recycled," said Werner Hoyt, the engineer who often prepares Suisun ships for towing. "Copper and nickel are getting $3 a pound. Aluminum is $1 a pound. Come on."

The administration is close to awarding nearly $4 million in contracts to take four decrepit World War II Victory-class ships from California to Texas for scrapping. People familiar with those ships fear that strong Pacific waves could tear apart their hulls and send them plunging to the bottom.

A similar Victory ship nearly sank 12 miles off southern Florida in December 2001 when a hull patch came off and the ship flooded while under tow to a scrapping yard. It had 57,000 gallons of oil aboard.

The hulls of the four Victories have decayed along the water line and bolt heads have rusted off. Heavy seas could flex "the hulls enough that they could pop," Hoyt said.

He and John E. Gibbons, a ship recycling consultant, exhaustively reviewed the Red Oak Victory, a ship of the same class. It was taken from Suisun Bay in 1998 and partially restored in Richmond, Calif., where it serves as a floating museum.

"It was the pick of the litter out there," Gibbons said, and it still had hull degradation around the waterline of about 50 percent.

The report concluded that Suisun Victory-class ships had decayed so much that they would be extremely dangerous to tow in the ocean and costly to make safe.

The Coast Guard must OK the ships before they can be moved. "We have to approve a dead-ship tow" after reviewing safety plans, said Capt. Gerald Swanson.

Despite the Victory ships' badly rusted condition, most of the decay is "cosmetic," said Curt J. Michanczyk, manager of the administration's ship disposal program.

The Victory ships have "a huge problem with the thickness of the hulls. They are very, very thin," Lovett said.

The administration has waited too long and fumbled too many chances to safely recycle the ships, said Bloom of Arc Ecology.

"When you deal with the Maritime Administration at the level of these ships, it's like Alice in Wonderland," said Bloom of Arc Ecology. "Everything is through the looking glass. Nothing is as it should be."

A 2001 report shows that three of the four Victory ships soon to leave for Texas could have more than 180,000 gallons of fuel oil in their tanks.

Russell would not provide updated figures or discuss how much oil the individual ships carry. She cited what she called national security concerns.

Revealing the ships' fuel loads could make them a terrorist target, said administration lawyer Christine Garland.

The Victory ships will be towed through the Pacific Ocean, the Panama Canal, the Caribbean Sea and the Gulf of Mexico at five to seven knots. Captains could seek shelter from storms in safe harbors along the route, but the seas are unpredictable and the ships old and weak.

"That's the thing about the Pacific," Lovett said. "The Pacific has a knack of being a little rough."

There is little monitoring of the fleet's effect on the Suisun Bay environment.

Russell said that "various local and state agencies" such as the San Francisco Bay Regional Water Quality Control Board and the California Department of Fish and Game monitor the fleet.

But California Public Records Act requests to those agencies turned up no documentation of testing, and spokespersons for those agencies said they are not done. The California Department of Toxic Substance Control also said it had no record of correspondence with the administration about the fleet.

"We have no records of any contacts with the Maritime Administration," Stephen Morse, the water board's assistant director, wrote in an e-mail.

The absence of outside environmental monitoring "is extremely troubling," said Richard Gutierrez, of the Basel Action Network, a Seattle environmental group. It joined with the Sierra Club to sue to stop the Maritime Administration's disposal of ships in foreign markets.

"They are just a risk by sitting there," Gutierrez said. "PCBs can leach. Asbestos can crumble. These are big issues for the environment and the community."

"We have done nothing to determine the legacy of contamination in Suisun Bay," said Gibbons. He has analyzed ship recycling for the National Environmental Education Training Center in Pennsylvania. It receives Defense Department funding.

"What is leaching into the bay? There is flaking lead paint. There are other paints and hull coatings that are flaking," Gibbons said. "There should be adequate sampling surveys around these ships to see what contaminants are in the water."

Lovett said the administration has a long record of not providing information from which such determinations can be made.

"They are just totally not forthcoming," he said. "Everything they seem to handle and they handle ineffectively and inefficiently."


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