Government sued over 'mothball fleet'

Several environmental groups sued the federal government Monday over toxic pollution caused by a fleet of mothballed warships floating near San Francisco Bay.

The groups accuse the U.S. Maritime Administration of violating state and federal environmental regulations as dozens of decaying ships linger well past a congressional deadline ordering their removal.

The suit was filed Monday afternoon in U.S. District Court in Sacramento.

“These vessels have long since ceased being useful for transportation and are now just floating junkyards,” according to the complaint brought by the Natural Resources Defense Council, Arc Ecology and San Francisco Baykeeper.

More than 70 ships comprise the Suisun Bay Reserve Fleet, some dating to World War II. The old ships were once kept afloat in case of war, but many have fallen into disrepair, overtaken by rust and rot.

The suit asks the court to order the federal agency to prepare an official review of the environmental impact caused by the ships and to remove hazardous waste including paint, discarded oil and asbestos.

The head of the Maritime Administration said in a statement that the agency was engaged in “ongoing and extensive efforts to ensure the safety of these vessels.”

“The best way, ultimately, to protect the Suisun Bay is to remove these vessels in as timely a manner as possible,” Maritime Administrator Sean T. Connaughton said. “We hope this latest development does not needlessly delay our efforts to remove these vessels.”

A congressional order set a 2006 deadline to scrap more than 50 ships, but a regulatory quagmire has kept the fleet anchored in place in the shallow, brackish inland waters east of San Francisco Bay.

Before they can be scrapped and sold, Coast Guard regulations require the removal of barnacles and other sea creatures clinging to the obsolete ships' hulls. That process causes toxic paint to flake off into the water. Fear of contamination has delayed their disposal.

A February study commissioned by the federal government suggested that even without the scraping, paint flaking off the Suisun Bay ships has shed tons of toxic heavy metals into estuary sediments.

Disposal operations in the country's two other reserve fleets in Beaumont, Texas, and on the James River near Newport News, Va., were also halted after the discovery of paint in Suisun Bay, though recent agreements with both states paved the way for disposal to resume.

Earlier this month, California water regulators informed the federal agency it could be fined up to $25,000 per day if it fails to come up with a plan to stop the paint from falling into the water. The fines have not yet been issued.

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