Government to remove 'ghost ships' from bay

BENICIA, Calif. —The U.S. government says it will remove a decaying armada of military vessels dating back to World War II from a San Francisco Bay waterway that has been polluted by the ships for decades.

Most of the vessels, including some that chased submarines during World War II and others that delivered troops and supplies to battlefields in subsequent wars, are destined for the recycling yard, the U.S. Maritime Administration, or MARAD, said Wednesday.

The agency said it settled a lawsuit and agreed to remove most of the Suisun Bay Reserve Fleet, known as the "ghost fleet," a collection of mostly obsolete military vessels.

The gray and rust-red hulks, some stretching between two and three football fields long, are anchored in rows in Suisun Bay, a shallow estuary between San Francisco Bay and the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.

Studies by the administration have suggested the old warships have dumped more than 20 tons of copper, lead, zinc and other metals into the estuary, a critical habitat for a number of endangered species.

"We are moving expeditiously to remove the worst polluting ships first and diligently moving to clean the rest," said David Matsuda, acting administrator of MARAD.

The settlement involving MARAD, environmental groups and state water quality regulators will see half of the ships deemed obsolete — the 25 worst polluters — removed by September 2012, with the rest gone by September 2017.

The federal agency plans to keep more than a dozen of the ships that are in better shape or still considered useful anchored in the bay, including the iconic battleship USS Iowa, which once served as transport for President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Some of the removals have already begun, with four ships taken out since November 2009.

On Wednesday, tugboats dragged the SS Mission Santa Ynez toward San Francisco Bay. The ship was on its way to a dry dock in San Francisco, where it would be cleaned and prepared for the longer journey through the Panama Canal to a recycling yard in Brownsville, Texas.

"There are a lot of spirits of soldiers on these boats, I believe that. A lot who never made it back," said John Muller, a U.S. Navy veteran and chair of the San Francisco Bay Regional Water Quality Control Board, a state regulatory agency that joined environmental groups in the lawsuit against MARAD.

Standing on a small vessel motoring around the old fleet, Muller's agency pushed for the removal, but he felt it was important to take a final up close look at much of the history that would be going to the scrap yard.