Reserve Fleet's vanishing act continues

The vanishing act of the James River ghost fleet could continue to the point that it numbers only about 15 ships by the end of next year, the head of the U.S. Maritime Administration said Wednesday.

On Wednesday morning, Maritime Administrator Sean T. Connaughton marked the departure of the 75th ship to leave the James River Reserve Fleet since Jan. 1, 2001, when there were 107 reserve ships in the river. The fleet — which included more than 800 ships in the years after World War II — now numbers 34, after tugboats hauled the Navy fleet oiler Truckee to Bay Bridge Enterprises in Chesapeake on Wednesday.

The exodus was initiated by a congressional mandate due to concern over aging, decrepit ships and the hazardous materials they carried. But the departures have picked up the pace in the past two years as the worst of the ships were taken care of, high scrap steel prices created a demand for the vessels and a political stalemate over the reserve fleet in California directed the Maritime Adminstration's effort to thinning the fleets in the James and in Beaumont, Texas.

Connaughton said those forces should continue to drive more ships out of the James at the same time that the Maritime Administration, or MARAD, is taking steps to ensure that a build-up of surplus, environmentally hazardous ships never happens again. Connaughton said MARAD from now on will require that ships are stripped and even dry-docked and cleaned up before accepting them into the reserve fleet.

That was never the case before. The reserve fleet system was designed to keep out-of-service ships at the ready in time of need or at least on hand for spare parts. It was not designed to hold onto dangerous ships because there was no other place to moor them.

The change in policy is necessary "so that we don't ever end up with the situation we had here, where people looked at the fleet as a hazard," Connaughton said.

The backlog of retired ships that created such concern in the late 1990s and the early part of this decade were handed over to MARAD from the military without any pre-conditions for what shape they were in. Many older vessels were constructed with toxic materials.

As ships piled up but were not moved out, 37 of the worst 40 ships in all of MARAD's reserve fleets were in the James River at the end of the 1990s. In 2001, the 107 ships contained 34,000 tons of oil, with about half that in the ships slated for eventual disposal. Prior to Wednesday, the 35 ships remaining held 3,890 tons of oil, an 89 percent decrease.

Connaughton, U.S. Rep. Rob Wittman, R-Westmoreland, state Del. Glenn Oder, R- Newport News, and Bay Bridge Enterprises executives gathered just ashore of the reserve fleet at Fort Eustis on Wednesday to mark that progress.

"We're moving at a record pace in removing these ships," Connaughton said. "We anticipate the fleet will be maybe half the size it is today a year from now."

Shailesh Vyas, president of Bay Bridge Enterprises, said the remaining fleet ships are in better shape and require less remediation costs than previous vessels. So while they potentially represent greater value to Bay Bridge and other ship scrappers, Vyas said the commodity market for steel is often volatile and he never tries to project it more than four months out.

Bay Bridge Enterprises, however, is making a bet on the reserve fleets in Texas and in Suisin Bay, Calif. The company plans to invest $15 million in a new yard in Brownsville, Texas — a ship-scrapping hub — that will be capable of taking ships from both those fleets. Virginia does not allow the company to dispose of those ships.

The one key factor that could slow the departure of ships from the James would be an end to the stalemate over the fleet in California. The National Resources Defense Council has sued MARAD over environmental concerns about the process of removing ships. Meanwhile, the legal tussle has prevented any progress in removing the ships from Suisin Bay.

Virginia lawmakers from the late Jo Ann Davis to Wittman to Oder reached out to MARAD to resolve concern over the James' ghost fleet, Connaughton said. That hasn't happened in California, he said.

"The worst of the worst (ships) are in Suisin Bay," he said. "There doesn't seem to be an interest in resolving this issue."