California fired back at the U.S. Maritime Administration on Friday, giving it a month to submit an "aggressive schedule" for cleaning up tons of toxic paint shedding from ships in the Suisun Bay Reserve Fleet.

The pollution "is of significant concern and must be abated," Bruce Wolfe, the state chief of water quality for the Bay Area, wrote in a letter to the Maritime Administration.

Wolfe also gave the administration 10 days to turn over results from tests on underwater cleaning performed on ships in Virginia that could be key to whether the federal ship-scrapping program can soon restart.

The orders came a day after U.S. Maritime Administrator Sean Connaughton told the state he was unilaterally lifting a moratorium on disposal of ships from the Suisun "mothball" fleet and that underwater hull cleaning would be conducted in Alameda before the ships are towed to Texas, where they would be cut up.

There are 73 ships in the fleet, 54 of which are slated to be destroyed. They present two separate environmental problems.

First, the Coast Guard last year ordered that before the ships can be towed to Texas for disposal, the underwater portions of the hulls must be cleaned of organic matter likebarnacles and seaweed to keep them from spreading to areas where they are not native.


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But when the Maritime Administration had two World War II Victory ships cleaned at the Port of Richmond 11 months ago, sheets of decaying metal came off the bottom of the vessels and weren't cleaned up.

Secondly, above the waterline, the ships are shedding tons of toxic metals from paint that has fallen from the ships hulls, decks and superstructures, according to a report prepared for the Maritime Administration.

Friday's order was designed to address both problems. The state wants the Maritime Administration to present a plan for cleaning the hulls that captures the metal discharges. And it wants a plan for cleaning up the peeling paint. The order marks the first time the state has addressed pollution concerns caused by problems above the ships' waterlines.

"We don't really want to turn this into a big bureaucratic mess," Wolfe said late Friday. "We are trying to nudge them."

He admitted that the state's authority over the Maritime Administration, which is part of the U.S. Department of Transportation, "may be limited" if the federal agency chose to ignore Friday's letter.

"We are using California (law) to enforce the federal Clean Water Act," Wolfe said. "If they decline to respond, we will study our legal remedies. Hopefully, it won't come to that."

Maritime Administration officials could not be reached for comment late Friday.

Staff of the Bay Area Regional Water Quality Control Board have been concerned about the underwater hull cleaning since the Port of Richmond work left sheets of metals in the water in August.

Wolfe wrote Friday that the state will also soon require the administration to submit plans to conduct further testing of Suisun Bay sediments. An environmental report dated Feb. 15 found that sediment samples taken around the fleet showed what were the same high levels of toxic metals found in paint flaking off the ships.

MediaNews reported on June 17 that the report showed more than 21 tons of paint containing concentrations of metals that qualified as hazardous waste under California law had fallen from 40 ships. The report estimated another 65 tons of paint remained on the vessels and could enter the environment.

Arc Ecology, a San Francisco environmental group turned the 615-page report over to MediaNews after obtaining it under the Freedom of Information Act. The administration's ships operation division in San Francisco ordered the report in June 2006, a month after MediaNews first reported on the deteriorating condition of the Suisun fleet and published photographs of paint peeling from the ships hulls, decks and super structures. 

The document listed seven metals, including copper, lead, zinc and barium, found in paint samples that qualified as hazardous waste under state law.

Connaughton, a lawyer and former merchant seaman, has repeatedly said that the best way to deal with the ships is to scrape them as quickly as possible. But he placed a moratorium on the administration's disposal in February after California objected to the way the administration had cleaned the underwater sections of hulls in Richmond.

He estimated that as many as 15 vessels could be scrapped within a year if the hull-cleaning issue with the state was resolved. Even under an increased disposal program, it would take years for all the Suisun ships to be destroyed.

Contact Thomas Peele at Tpeele@cctimes.com or (925) 977.8463