The Ghost Fleet Haunts the Bay No More

Sep 5, 2017
Sejal Choksi-Chugh
by Sejal Choksi-Chugh

The Ghost Fleet of Suisun Bay—57 decaying military ships that poisoned the San Francisco Bay ecosystem for 40 years—is finally gone. The last ship was towed out of the Golden Gate in August, on its way to be dismantled and recycled. This is a major victory for a healthier Bay ecosystem.

The Ghost Fleet was a collection of mothballed military ships from World War II and the Korean War. They were originally stored in Suisun Bay, a large northern inlet of San Francisco Bay, for possible emergency reactivation during wartime. But as time passed, the fleet became a floating toxic waste dump. The ships leaked fuel, rusted, collected invasive species and shed more than 20 tons of toxic metals and paint into the water.

The removal of these polluting vessels will prevent an estimated 50 tons of heavy metals and 14 million gallons of oil and wastewater from entering San Francisco Bay. It will also keep 38,000 cubic yards of PCBs out of the water, protecting Bay wildlife from a long-lasting contaminant that can cause liver damage and death.

These toxic ships are gone thanks to a successful lawsuit brought by Baykeeper, Arc Ecology and Natural Resources Defense Council. In 2010, Baykeeper, our partner environmental organizations, and the Regional Water Quality Control Board reached an agreement requiring the federal government to clean up and remove all the ships by this year.

We still recall walking the decks on Baykeeper’s first yearly inspection to monitor cleanup progress, with a thick layer of hazardous paint chips and rust crunching under our steps.

Pollution levels in the mud directly below the Ghost Fleet were high enough to qualify it as hazardous waste. Toxins in the mud could enter the Bay’s food chain and harm bottom-dwelling species like green sturgeon.

A lot of wildlife was exposed to those toxins. Suisun Bay and its wetlands provide critical habitat for endangered fish, including Chinook salmon and Delta smelt. The area is home to hundreds of native bird species, and is an important feeding stop for thousands of migrating water birds each year.

To protect San Francisco Bay during the cleanup process, Baykeeper required the federal government to first remove loose and peeling paint from all the ships. Within a year, tons of paint and rust chips were collected in barrels and taken to a hazardous waste disposal facility.

The government was also required to remove the worst ships first in order to address the biggest pollution threats as quickly as possible. Next, the agreement required controls—such as onsite filtration systems and berms—to be put in place to prevent contamination from the remaining ships. As a result, ongoing pollution was significantly reduced during the seven-year ship removal process. Most of the ships had invasive species and toxic substances removed at a dry dock on Mare Island, then they were towed to Texas and other parts of the country for dismantling and recycling for parts.

Since the Ghost Fleet cleanup began, the federal government has stored more surplus military ships in Suisun Bay. Pollution controls recommended by Baykeeper are being used proactively to prevent contamination from those newer ships. And the government has also indicated it will use similar pollution controls on mothballed ships nationwide. The Ghost Fleet cleanup is a real success story for San Francisco Bay—and for clean water across the country.

Photo by Matt Knoth, Flickr/CC

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