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Victory Ships continue to peel and rust in Suisun Bay. (Contra Costa Times/Karl Mondon)
More than 21 tons of lead, zinc, barium, copper and other toxic metals have fallen or washed away from decaying government ships in Suisun Bay, and high levels of the materials were found in sediment under the vessels, according to a draft report.

Tests on water extracted from sediment samples indicate a significant risk to aquatic life on the bay bottom and that toxic metals are likely entering the food chain and could be passed on to people who eat fish from the area, said two scientists who reviewed the report for the Times.

The 610-page document suggests that the "mothball fleet" of dozens of World War II relics and rotting cargo carriers is more of an environmental threat than the U.S. Maritime Administration, which maintains it, has previously acknowledged.

The report lists seven toxic metals in peeling and flaking paints in concentrations that exceed California's standards for hazardous waste.

In addition to the 21 tons of metals that are estimated to have fallen, at least an additional 65 tons remain on the ships.

That toxic material "is likely to be released to the environment" and its cleanup "is highly warranted and recommended" because of threats to the "ecosystem, site maintenance personnel, visitors and salvage crews," states the report by R&M Environmental and Infrastructure, an Oakland engineering firm.

The paint problem "is not going to stop on its own," said Michael McGowan, a scientist with Arc Ecology, a San Francisco environmental group that monitors government-caused pollution.


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"This material is going to keep getting into the bay, and something has to be done about it."

Dangerous water

The Maritime Administration commissioned the analysis after the Times reported in May 2006 on the deteriorating conditions of the ships.

The study was designed to estimate how much of the ships' paint had already flaked off and how much remains aboard that could drop into the water -- and to evaluate bay sediment under the fleet.

Forty ships were surveyed and 24 sediment samples were taken. Water taken from six of those samples was subjected to further testing.

The key findings:

  • The paint is highly toxic hazardous waste.

  • About 25 percent of the paint on the ships has flaked off.

  • Much of the remaining paint is badly peeling or "exfoliating" and is an environmental threat.

  • The same metals that were found in high concentrations in the paint chip samples were also present in high concentrations in the sediment samples, but they were not directly linked to the ships.

  • Water extracted from the sediment contained levels of toxic metals "significantly higher" than what is commonly found in contaminated sediment.

    Water in the sediment is "much, much more dangerous than anyone would want it to be," said Raymond Lovett, a chemist in West Virginia who specializes in ship recycling.

    The test performed on the sediment water indicates whether the level of metals in it are high enough for living things to ingest them. If the results show that the ratio of sulfides to water in a sample is higher than 1, then the metals are "bioavailable" to organisms.

    The higher the ratio, the higher the amount of metal in the water. The ratios on the six tests ranged from 11 to 38. The report calls those results "significantly higher than values commonly observed for contaminated sediments."

    That means that fish, clams and other creatures that inhabit the bottom are absorbing the materials. "Any organism that burrows in the mud will contact this water. The (tests) show that organisms in the water will take in" the toxic metals, Lovett said.

    The report calls for further investigation of the high ratios. It does not define the water or sediment as toxic and states that the levels of metals are consistent with samples taken miles away, suggesting the ships may not be the source or the only source.

    Industrial and municipal pollution, surface runoff and rain might also be responsible for the metals in the sediment, the report states. But that "does not exclude the potential for ecological risk to be present" from the paint, which is falling from many of the ships in large pieces.

    The report does not directly link the toxic metals found in the sediment to the tons of paint, apparently because such an analysis was not ordered.

    "They should have put the sediment under a microscope and looked for paint chip in it," Lovett said. Still, it was obvious that the ships significantly contributed to the metals found in the sediments, he said. "There is obviously no way around it. There's nothing else that could happen to the paint."

    Lovett also said additional tests are needed on marine organisms from the bay bottom. "They have to get the worms and the clams and test them. This is not trivial."

    'Bureaucratic incompetence'

    The Maritime Administration received the document Feb. 15, but its chief environmental officer, Michael Carter, said last week that he had no knowledge of it or its origins and wouldn't discuss it.

    The agency's chief spokeswoman, Shannon Russell, also said she had no knowledge of the report, but she suggested it illustrates why the ships should be recycled as soon as possible. "This is yet another reason to remove these vessels from the fleet," she said.

    The Times obtained the report from Arc Ecology. It obtained a copy under a Freedom of Information request earlier this year.

    Saul Bloom, the group's executive director, said it is outrageous that such a critical document had not been brought to the attention of Carter and other administration higher-ups in the four months since the contractor turned it in.

    "It's bureaucratic incompetence. It's their damn report," Bloom said.

    The head of the firm that performed the testing said the results were turned over to the Maritime Administration's San Francisco office in February. "I was under the impression that it went to Washington (D.C.)," said Masood Ghassemi of R&M Environmental Engineering and Infrastructure.

    The test results will likely prompt California regulators to look more closely at the Suisun fleet.

    "This is new information that we didn't have before. We are very interested in getting this document. It appears risk assessments should be done," said Shin-Roei Lee, a watershed division chief for the San Francisco Bay Regional Water Quality Control Board.

    60-year history

    The federal government began stockpiling surplus ships in Suisun Bay more than 60 years ago, at the end of World War II. The Maritime Administration is a civilian agency that is part of the Department of Transportation, although it stores war ships for the Navy alongside merchant vessels.

    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.

    This month fewer than 80 vessels remain there, according to Maritime Administration documents. About 55 of them are either classified as ready for disposal or being readied. The classification process includes a lengthy review of a ship's historic value and the stripping of useful parts from it. While the ships ride anchor in the bay, sometimes for decades, little or no maintenance is performed on them.

    The Maritime Administration has missed congressional deadlines to dispose of all obsolete vessels, a result of a lack of funding and its own cumbersome processes. It pays companies to scrap the vessels, a cost to taxpayers that often exceeds $1 million per ship from Suisun Bay because there are no disposal operations on the West Coast so the vessels must be towed through the Panama Canal to Texas.

    Last year the Coast Guard added a new hurdle to the process. It began requiring that the underwater portions of the ships' hulls be cleaned before they could be removed from local waters to stop the spread of non-native or invasive species.

    When two World War II Victory ships were cleaned in Richmond last summer, large portions of metals came off the hulls and were left in the water, according to government documents. The water quality control board then began investigating the cleaning process as a cause of pollution.

    In December, the board's executive officer required that the Maritime Administration comply with state anti-pollution laws when cleaning ships. Specifically, he mandated that the Maritime Administration capture any materials that come off the hulls during cleaning.

    The Maritime Administration suspended its ship disposal program in February as it searched for a way to comply. In an April memo, its officials said they planned to make "a good-faith effort" to use such a system but did not guarantee it. The matter remains unresolved.

    Meanwhile, only Naval vessels can be removed from the Suisun Bay fleet because they are exempt from the hull-cleaning requirements.

    Many of the vessels in the bay are in poor condition, taking on water and listing. Water needs to be periodically pumped from some to keep them afloat. Most are severely rusted, and Maritime Administration documents show they are laden with tons of PCBs, asbestos, fuel oil and other toxic substances.

    Lawsuit likely

    Little or no testing to measure the fleet's environmental impact had occurred until the report issued in February.

    Based on its results, Bloom said his organization is "very, very likely" to take the Maritime Administration to court soon to try to force further testing and remediation.

    Bloom said the report raises questions about whether fish caught in the area are safe for human consumption and how far polluted paint chips might travel from the fleet.

    "People catch fish out there on a weekly basis," Bloom said. "There might be people fishing out there who don't know this."

    Eric Larson, spokesman for the state Department of Fish and Game, said his agency already urges people to limit their consumption of fish that reside in San Francisco and Suisun bays and the Delta, such as striped bass, sturgeon, croaker and halibut, because of pollution concerns like those outlined in the report.

    Fish and Game recommends that adults limit themselves to two meals of resident fish per month and not eat striped bass longer than 35 inches. Women who are pregnant or might become pregnant and children younger than 6 should not eat more than one meal of fish per month and should not eat striped bass more than 27 inches long.

    Migratory fish that pass through the bays and Delta, such as salmon, herring and anchovies, are less of a concern, Larson said.

    The ship fleet, anchored off Benicia just east of the Carquinez Strait, is at a critical ecological juncture where fresh Delta river water flowing out crosses over bay salt water flowing in, McGowan of Arc Ecology said.

    "There is the potential for metals to be moving both ways," he said. "This has a big effect on the ecology of the Delta. The fleet is not helping the Delta smelt and how much it is hurting them is open to serious questions."

    Both California and the federal government classify the Delta smelt as a threatened species. Scientists are investigating the rapid decline in its population, including the contribution of man-made pollution.

    The 24 sediment samples from the Maritime Administration study only took materials about 2 inches deep. Bloom and McGowan suggested that deeper bottom samples are needed, as are tests to determine how paint chips may spread through tidal currents.

    "A 2-knot current moves a yard a second. In a minute a piece of paint can be 60 yards away," McGowan said.

    It is unclear how much work would be required to remove the peeling paint. The report estimates that 17 percent of paint on the outside of hulls is gone, as is 58 percent of it on decks and 18 percent of it from interior walls.

    A complete environmental assessment of the Suisun fleet and its impact on the bay is needed, Bloom said.

    "If this is a start, fine," he said. "But let's see where it goes. There seems to be a regulatory void here."

    Thomas Peele is an investigative reporter. Reach him at 925-977-8463 or tpeele@cctimes.com.

    _In addition to peeling toxic paint, ships in the Suisun Bay Reserve Fleet contain hazardous materials deep inside them such as PCBs, asbestos and fuel oil.

    Newly obtained Maritime Administration documents show how much was extracted from ships scrapped in recent years. The reports, prepared by Texas scrapping companies, describe hundreds of tons of those materials taken from the vessels as they were torn apart.

    The reports show that:

    The Point Loma, which was scraped last year, contained 139 tons of asbestos, 128 tons of PCBs and 285 tons of fuel oil and oily water.

    The Nemasket, an old tanker also scraped last year, contained 287 tons of oil, 108 cubic yards of PCBs, 108 cubic yards of asbestos and 34 pounds of mercury.

    The Tioga County, destroyed in 2005, contained 259 cubic yards of asbestos, 360 pounds of PCBs, 26 tons of oil, 238 tons of oily water and 100 pounds of mercury.

    The Florence, destroyed last year, contained 150 tons of PCBs, 75 tons of asbestos, 3,631 tons of oily water and 306 tons of petroleum.

    The Wahkiakum County, destroyed in 2005-06, contained 195 cubic yards of asbestos, 240 cubic yards of PCBs, 253 tons of oil, 200 tons of oily water and 276 pounds of mercury.

    _A federally commissioned report indicates that paint chipping off ships in the Suisun Bay Reserve Fleet contains concentrations of toxic metals that exceed California's standards for hazardous waste. The toxic metals are:

    Barium: A soft silvery metal that is sometimes used in rat poison and is heavily used in the petroleum industry. It affects the nervous system and heart, and causes tremors, weakness and paralysis.

    Cadmium: A highly toxic metal found in paints. Cadmium is a carcinogen, and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health classifies it as a workplace hazard because of its frequent industrial uses.

    Chromium: A steel-gray hard metal that is used on dyes and pigments and in making steel. It can cause nose bleeds, and ulcers and holes in the nasal septum. Studies have shown that increased exposure raises the likelihood of lung cancer.

    Copper: A reddish-brown corrosion-resistant metal, it is used as an electrical and thermal conductor and can be found in paints. Copper can cause vomiting, diarrhea, stomach cramps and nausea.

    Lead: A highly toxic silvery gray metal with widespread industrial uses. It is considered omnipresent in the environment and is essentially indestructible. It was used in paints for most of the 20th century, creating a major public health threat. Exposure can cause nerve and reproductive disorders, cognitive and behavioral disorders, hypertension and anemia.

    Mercury: A heavy silver metal that is one of five elements that is liquid at room temperature. It is used in thermometers and other scientific instruments. It is a major pollutant that is classified as a workplace hazard because of its frequent industrial use. It is stored in the muscle tissues of fish and easily works its way up the food chain.

    Zinc: A bluish-white metal that is brittle at ordinary temperatures and malleable when heated. It is used in alloys and galvanizing iron. Health effects from overexposure can include eye, throat, nose and skin irritation, and lung damage.

    Sources: The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health and the Reporters Environmental Handbook