The Maritime Administration is shifting its cumbersome bureaucratic attention to the environmentally sensitive Suisun Bay mothball fleet, in the San Francisco Bay. . First up is the Andrew Higgins, a fleet oiler, which is destined to become part of the Chilean navy. (This is not some rust bucket. She was launched in 1987 and decommissioned in 1996).
Following this, another four ships, part of the Victory class from the 1940s, are up for removal – most likely to the breaker's yard. As merchant shipping is only too painfully aware, all maritime activity around San Francisco is measured by its ecological effects, usually deemed to be harmful. The Higgins will stir up another storm if, as is likely, she is towed to Mobile, via the Panama Canal, without hull cleaning or removal of sources of foreign marine species. The towing will be undertaken by VSE Corp. at a cost of about $1.5 million.
Naval vessels in the fleet are exempt from hull cleaning requirements, but there are at least three private and California state eco-agencies that will be alerted when the Higgins moves and will kick into gear with lawsuits to stop removal of merchant ships without cleaning. There are about 57 ships in Suisun Bay ready for disposal but Marad has fallen behind its schedule because of bureaucracy and the need to come up with the money to pay for towing.
The Coast Guard has brought in its own rule that hulls below the waterline be cleaned before they can be removed from local waters.
The eco-activists rest their case on a report from two years ago that said more than 20 tons of toxic metals from the reserve fleet had leaked into the water and that another 65 tons were still on the ships. At least 25 percent of the paint had flaked off.
For the government, there is something of a Catch-22 situation. Because of the maze of federal and California regulations, ships have to be moved to be cleaned, but they have to be cleaned before removal. On top of this, the regional water quality control board in San Francisco says that Marad has to capture any metals or paints that are removed during cleaning – a rule that has confounded the agency and added to the problems of vessel removal.
Aside from the environmental aspects, Marad's logistics thinking needs to be questioned. Shipyards were invited to bid for the modification work on the Higgins before it goes to Chile. San Francisco's lost out, although it has done a considerable of naval and related work. The practical and financial cost-benefit advantages of getting the work done virtually on site would presumably outweigh many or all other considerations.
Then again, Marad is a civilian agency (part of the DoT) that caretakes for the Navy and when it comes to final decisions, the military's "advice" usually goes unquestioned – no matter which country in the world is involved.