Rotting fleet to be cleaned, recycled

BENICIA, Calif. —A fleet of old, rotting warships shedding toxic paint into the water near San Francisco Bay will be cleaned up and recycled under a new plan announced by federal officials Thursday.

Deputy Secretary of Transportation John Porcari said the government has already awarded contracts to dispose of two World War II-era cargo ships from the Suisun Bay Reserve Fleet.

The group of more than 70 mostly obsolete vessels in Suisun Bay has been at the center of a nearly three-year deadlock between state water regulators and the federal government, which manages the fleet.

Porcari said the ships will be cleaned in dry-dock — not in the bay — alleviating state officials' concerns about additional water pollution.

"This is definitely big," said Bruce Wolfe, executive officer of the San Francisco Bay Regional Water Quality Control Board. "This is the start."

A congressional order set a 2006 deadline to scrap more than 50 ships in the fleet, but a regulatory quagmire has kept them in place.

A lack of disposal operations on the West Coast means the ships must be towed to Texas to be broken apart. Under federal law, the ships must be cleaned of invasive species clinging to their hulls before they can enter the ocean.

California officials fought a Bush administration plan to clean the ships where they were anchored, arguing that the process would cause paint laden with heavy metals to flake off into the bay. They also filed suit against the federal government claiming that the paint flaking off the ships put the fleet in violation of the federal Clean Water Act.

Wolfe said the state would continue to press its suit until a settlement or court order puts legal force behind the government's commitment to get rid of all ships awaiting disposal.

Of the 57 ships slated for the scrap heap, Porcari said the 25 most decrepit vessels would be disposed of first. The process would take several years because of limited space in dry-dock facilities, he said.