First of ghost fleet ships arrives at West Coast yard for disposal

In February, the first of the old ships from the U.S. Maritime Administration’s (MarAd’s) Reserve Fleet at Suisun Bay was towed six miles to one of the two rehabilitated graving dry docks in California at the former Mare Island Naval Shipyard for scrapping.

The first ship, SS Solon Turman, a cargo ship built in 1961, was towed into dry dock at Mare Island during the first week of February. A second ship, SS President, was scheduled to arrive at Mare Island in early March.

The work will be done by Allied Defense Recycling under MarAd contracts valued at $1.5 million and $1.6 million. The work includes disposal of toxic wastes.

Jay Nast, one of the principals of Allied Defense Recycling, which was established about six years ago, said, “It has taken us that long to get through all of the permitting and complete the dredging process, but now we have our first ship in dry dock, and we have a second one scheduled in about three weeks. We have a contract with a licensed hazardous materials handler to dispose of the toxic wastes.â€

Nast hopes this is just the beginning of the transfer of MarAd ships from the Reserve Fleet to Mare Island for scrapping.

“There are approximately 50 MarAd ships that will fit into the two Mare Island dry docks, and we will bid on each of them. In full operation with 100 to 120 workers, we could scrap about 15 ships per year,†Nast said.

The transfer of the first of the Reserve Fleet ships to Mare Island represents the culmination of years of effort to find a cost-effective and environmentally acceptable way of disposing of the ships.

Because of the lack of West Coast ship-breaking facilities caused by the area’s stringent environmental regulations, obsolete MarAd ships from Suisun Bay — a northern arm of San Francisco Bay — had to be towed through the Panama Canal to ship-breaking facilities in Texas in a costly and dangerous operation.

For many years, MarAd has been under a federal mandate to dispose of the old ships in its three reserve fleets (the other two are on the East and Gulf coasts). The final destination for all of these ships has been the ship-breaking facilities in Texas. Adding to the high cost of the long tow from California to Texas was the U.S. Coast Guard requirement that the hulls be cleaned before the ships left San Francisco Bay to prevent the spread of invasive species.

In recent years, complaints that the fleet was becoming a major source of pollution grew louder. The environmental concerns led the state of California to take the federal government to court. As a result of that lawsuit, MarAd is under a court order to dispose of the remaining 57 ships on a tight schedule.

There was a provision in the court order that MarAd could scrap its ships at Bay Area facilities and dispose of the toxic materials locally. As a consequence, Allied Defense Recycling was formed and began looking at the two graving docks at the former Mare Island Naval Shipyard, only six miles away from MarAd’s fleet.

The dry docks measure 68 by 680 feet and 84 by 659 feet, large enough for 80 percent of the ships at Suisun Bay, but there was a major silting problem and extensive dredging would be required, not only to deepen the channel, but also to open the doors of the graving docks.

MarAd was supportive of the program, and dredging was completed in late 2010 on the basis of the ship-disposal agreement with Allied Defense Recycling.

Nast, one of the founders of Allied Defense Recycling, said, “We got unanimous approval wherever we went and tremendous support from the city of Vallejo where Mare Island is located.â€

Environmental organizations were pleased the transfer of the ships from Suisun Bay to Mare Island for disposal has begun.

Will Travis, executive director of the San Francisco Bay Conservation & Development Commission, which is dedicated to protecting San Francisco Bay, praised the ship-scrapping initiatives.

“The ship-breaking program at Mare Island is a wonderful project,†he said.

“They passed all of the environmental reviews and got all of the necessary permits,†he said of Allied Defense Recycling. “They are going to be providing jobs in the Bay Area, and that’s wonderful. They are revitalizing an old facility, and that is wonderful. They are cleaning up MarAd’s old ships, and that is wonderful. And they don’t have to tow them all the way to Texas, and that is especially wonderful. It is a great project.â€

Wes Starratt PE

By Professional Mariner Staff