FINALLY, AFTER years of delay, the federal government has agreed to a plan to clean and dispose of the ships fouling Suisun Bay with tons of decaying toxic metals.
It took a change in presidential administrations, a federal court order, aggressive action by the San Francisco Bay Area Water Quality Control Board, persistence of local environmental groups, support of Rep. George Miller and the relentless work of Bay Area News Group investigative reporter Thomas Peele to produce the agreement announced Wednesday.
Under the deal, the U.S. Maritime Administration will spend at least $38 million over the next 2ÿ1D2 years to clean and dispose of 25 of the ships. All 52 rotting World War II relics and cargo carriers in the fleet scheduled for recycling will be removed by September 2017.
A federal judge in Sacramento must still approve the agreement. The judge would retain the right to enforce the settlement.
It's long overdue. The federal government began stockpiling surplus ships in Suisun Bay more than 60 years ago, at the end of World War II. At its height, the Suisun Bay Reserve Fleet contained hundreds of vessels. A 1959 photo shows 324 ships riding anchor, lashed together side by side in 14 rows.
For nearly two decades, the federal government has known about the environmental hazard of the decaying ships and has found excuses for not addressing the problem.
The Maritime Administration's own study found more than 21 tons of paint containing concentrations of metals that qualified as hazardous waste under California law had fallen from 40 of the ships. The toxins included, for example, copper, lead, zinc and barium. The report, first revealed by Peele in 2007, estimated another 65 tons of paint remained on the vessels and could enter the environment.
The Bush administration stonewalled, but on President Barack Obama's watch the issue has been taken seriously. Attorney Michael Wall of the National Resources Defense Council said the agreement will help endangered species such as the chinook salmon and the delta smelt, and will avoid the flaking of another 50 tons of toxic paint into the water.
Logistical issues remain. The few recently removed ships have been towed to Brownsville, Texas, for dismantling. A company is trying to open a recycling operation at the former naval shipyard on Mare Island in Vallejo so the work can be done locally. Another company is working on plans to scrap the ships in Saipan in the Northern Mariana Islands.
Our preference would be to keep the jobs local. But, for now, we're just pleased to see a legally binding deal to get rid of this floating toxic mess.