MARAD proudly declared this week that at least 25 ships of the Suisun Bay reserve fleet, popularly known as the ghost fleet, will be cleaned up in a San Francisco yard and then towed to Brownsville to be broken up. Two cargo ships – subject to different environmental regulations from naval vessels under the military's control – will be the first to go to the scrap yard.
Huge cheers went up from the environmental community and everyone patted themselves on the back. "This is definitely big," Bruce Wolfe, executive officer of the San Francisco Bay Regional Water Quality Control Board, has been quoted as saying. "This is the start."
Others in the crowd are saying "Not so fast" and are asking: "Excuse me, but what about the Andrew Higgins?" Its name and fate have been airbrushed from public discussion as though it never existed.
Bruce Wolfe was completely in the dark about the ship when I asked him the same question a few weeks ago in another guise.
As it turns out, the Higgins is ceasing to exist, as you read these words. The ship was towed out of San Francisco Bay about three weeks ago, with no clean up or removal of toxic paints or waste, and taken straight to Galveston before starting life under a new name with Chile's navy.
Just why there has been no mention of the vessel or its fate is something of a mystery. But, industry insiders are speculating that the feds' sudden new desire to go public about the fleet is partly due to a mix of commercial and political motives – good scrap metal contracts have been signed and politically sensitive buyers are being avoided.
The Obama administration would probably have been only too pleased to cancel the Chile deal, but a contract is a contract and nothing could be done without risking litigation and public disclosure of negotiations that are best kept quiet.
Sadly, maritime news seems to be slipping into the same habit of being selective with its facts as the corporate financial and commercial sectors.
At Charleston, Maersk has changed its mind about pulling out and is using a dedicated space in a smaller terminal. Originally, it wanted to leave because the union refused to countenance the use of a non-union terminal – and the new arrangement is clearly a compromise because less union labor will be employed.
Maersk has been fulsome in praising a whole slew of politicians and regional officials but left out any mention of the trade union. The industry was itching for some reference, however brief and bald, to the union – which would have left no one in any doubt about the real situation.
Nostalgia for the past, when blunt speaking was the norm and prevented misunderstanding, is seen as being replaced by the needs of public relations.