ALAMEDA -- More than 40 abandoned and sunken vessels are in the Oakland-Alameda Estuary, leaking contaminants and posing a hazard to sailors, rowers and others who drift past. But that will soon change under a multimillion-dollar project to raise the wrecks, including two tugboats completely submerged near the Park Street Bridge.

The cleanup, which began in September and should be wrapped up by Thanksgiving, is a combined effort of local, state and federal agencies.

Along with sunken boats and the various debris that juts above the water, the project is targeting people who live aboard their vessels and are illegally moored in the estuary.

A worker removes debris as water is pumped out of a raised sunken abandoned vessel in the Oakland Estuary in Alameda, Calif., on Thursday, Oct. 17, 2013.
A worker removes debris as water is pumped out of a raised sunken abandoned vessel in the Oakland Estuary in Alameda, Calif., on Thursday, Oct. 17, 2013. Federal, state and local agencies are working together in this joint Oakland Estuary Removal Project that is removing abandoned vessels and other debris from the estuary making a cleaner and safer waterway. (Dan Honda/Bay Area News Group)

So far, crews have raised four boats and cleaned up four sites, said Todd Thalhamer, a project engineer with the state Department of Resources Recycling and Recovery, or CalRecycle, one of the agencies behind the effort.

"It's an underwater dump site," Thalhamer said on Oct. 17, when he joined others helping with the cleanup on a tour of some of the locations, including at Union Point Park along Oakland's Embarcadero.

What can make the work difficult, Thalhamer said, is that some wrecks identified on sonar later disappeared after silt swept over them with the tide from San Francisco Bay.

Among the completely submerged vessels is the Respect, a 700-ton tugboat that sunk in April 2007 near The Dutra Group engineering yard on Clement Avenue. Built in 1945, the Respect served the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railway before it ended up in private hands and docked in the estuary. The day before it sank, vandals boarded the tug and pillaged it for scrap metal.

Pieces of a demolished abandoned vessel lies in a pile near the Oakland Estuary in Alameda, Calif., on Thursday, Oct. 17, 2013. Federal, state and local
Pieces of a demolished abandoned vessel lies in a pile near the Oakland Estuary in Alameda, Calif., on Thursday, Oct. 17, 2013. Federal, state and local agencies are working together in this joint Oakland Estuary Removal Project that is removing abandoned vessels and other debris from the estuary making a cleaner and safer waterway. (Dan Honda/Bay Area News Group)

The Captain Al, a 110-foot tugboat, is submerged at the same spot, as well as two barges. The laborious work to raise a vessel often involves pumping water and removing silt lodged deep within the hull, said Rich Martyn, an on-site coordinator with the Environmental Protection Agency. Crews hope to raise the Respect and the three vessels nearby around the end of the month, Thalhamer said.

When a boat is lifted from the water and brought ashore, contaminants such as fuel, oil and asbestos are removed. It's then broken apart and any salvageable metal is recycled. What's left ends up in a landfill.

No unusual items have turned up inside any of the wrecks. But during a recent cleanup in the Sacramento Delta crews raised a vessel that contained radioactive aircraft instruments, Thalhamer said.

A sunken boat recently lifted out of the water is brought to land near the Oakland Estuary in Alameda, Calif., on Thursday, Oct. 17, 2013. Federal, state
A sunken boat recently lifted out of the water is brought to land near the Oakland Estuary in Alameda, Calif., on Thursday, Oct. 17, 2013. Federal, state and local agencies are working together in this joint Oakland Estuary Removal Project that is removing abandoned vessels and other debris from the estuary making a cleaner and safer waterway. (Dan Honda/Bay Area News Group)

"Every time we tackle one of these, it's an eye-opener," he said.

Other wrecks set to be removed include a catamaran, a tug and two barges partially above the water in San Leandro Bay. Pelicans and cormorants currently roost on the tug's wheelhouse.

"Those boats are next on the hit list," Thalhamer said.

The EPA has committed $3 million for the cleanup, and CalRecycle is putting up $1.3 million. A $650,000 grant from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation is also helping pay for the project, plus Bay Ship & Yacht has provided $75,000 as part of a mitigation fund for its new dry dock.

The staging area for the work is the vacant lot at Oak and Clement streets, where owner Francis Collins hopes to eventually build housing. Collins is allowing the crews free use of his property.

The effort to launch the cleanup began last year when Oakland police Sgt. Jim Gordon, who is part of the department's marine patrol unit, contacted state officials after discovering dozens of syringes near Jack London Square.

"I realized that something had got to be done," Gordon said. "It was a hazard to the community."

Contact Peter Hegarty at 510-748-1654. Follow him at Twitter.com/Peter_Hegarty.

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Workers remove debris from in and around a sunken vessel in the Oakland Estuary in Alameda, Calif., on Thursday, Oct. 17, 2013. Federal, state and local
Workers remove debris from in and around a sunken vessel in the Oakland Estuary in Alameda, Calif., on Thursday, Oct. 17, 2013. Federal, state and local agencies are working together in this joint Oakland Estuary Removal Project that is removing abandoned vessels and other debris from the estuary making a cleaner and safer waterway. (Dan Honda/Bay Area News Group)