After years of legal wrangling, the federal government agreed Wednesday to remove a fleet of mothballed military ships that has dropped tons of heavy metal pollution into a waterway northeast of San Francisco.
As part of a settlement with environmental groups, the U.S. Maritime Administration said it would remove 52 obsolete and decaying vessels -- nicknamed the Ghost Fleet -- from the estuary between the San Francisco Bay and the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta. Five others have been removed since November.
The agency plans to get rid of the 25 worst offenders in less than 2 1/2 years; the entire decaying armada is scheduled to be removed from Suisun Bay by September 2017. Within the next four months, the agency has agreed to remove hazardous paint chips from vessel decks.
"We are following through on our commitment to clean and maintain these vessels in an environmentally sound manner," said David Matsuda, acting administrator of the maritime agency. "We are moving expeditiously to remove the worst-polluting ships first and diligently moving to clean the rest."
Officials say it is likely that most, if not all, of the ships will be towed out of the bay and recycled for scrap.
The ships already have shed more than 20 tons of heavy metals into the bay, including lead, zinc, copper and cadmium, said Michael Wall, chief litigator for the Natural Resources Defense Council in San Francisco. If they are not cleaned up, they could lose as much as 50 tons more.
"Many of these ships have been moored there since the Vietnam War with no maintenance," said Wall, who estimates that the cleanup could cost more than $100 million. "The paint, loaded with heavy metals, has been flaking off and polluting the bay."
Congress issued three deadlines for the maritime agency to clean up the Ghost Fleet, Wall said, but the agency "violated all of them."
So, along with several other environmental groups, the Natural Resources Defense Council sued in 2007. In January, U.S. District Judge Garland Burrell ruled that the ships were illegally polluting the bay. The settlement is still subject to court approval.
"It has been a long process to get to this agreement," said Deb Self, executive director of San Francisco Baykeeper. "We are very glad that [the maritime agency] is taking full responsibility for these ships, which have been poisoning Suisun Bay and its endangered species for decades."