New Program to Clean Obsolete Ship Hulls Under Fire

A newly implemented Coast Guard directive to the U.S. Maritime Administration (MARAD) to scrape the hulls of aging ships leaving the Suisun Bay Reserve Fleet (and other MARAD locations) may be doing more harm than good, according to an article published in the Contra Costa Times on 11 August.

The aging vessels haven't been in dry dock for decades and their hulls are usually heavily fouled with barnacles other marine organisms. The Coast Guard directive is intended to comply with federal laws designed to limit the spread of non-native or invasive species to other waters. But, according to some observers, the June 27th order to clean all ships prior to their departure from the Maritime Administration's reserve fleets in California, Texas and Virginia may also be leaving lead paint or other contaminants in local waters. The Contra Costa Times article cited Raymond Lovett of the Ship Recycling Institute in Philadelphia as an expert in such matters.

The cleaning procedure, which involves the scraping of the hulls with brushes under the waterline, is now mandatory. It’s also expensive. The last three ships to undergo such a procedure cost about $405,000, or about $135,000 per hull. The added cost is an unwelcome burden to an agency which is typically under-funded in their unenviable mandate to dispose of this aging fleet of unwanted vessels. Through no fault of their own, MARAD will not make the congressional deadline of next month, set six years ago, to remove all of the vessels. About 125 such ships remain, spread out among the three MARAD fleets. Extrapolating the total cost of cleaning each and every one of these hulls is roughly equivalent to the amount of money allotted by Congress in a given year for their disposal.

Although the Coast Guard and MARAD have said that they will closely monitor the results of the new program, questions abound. MARAD spokesperson Shannon Russell says, “The organic matter from organisms on the hull is re-introduced to the local ecosystem.” Most of this material, she adds, is local stuff to begin with. With some of these vessels having spent ten years or more in the fleet, the logic is hard to argue with.

Russell also claims to have been misquoted by last week’s Contra Costa Times article, when readers were left with the impression that she was referring to lead paint and possibly other toxic substances dropping from the ship’s hull during the cleaning process. Nothing could be further from the truth, she says. “The method of scraping the hulls involves soft, non-metal brushes and we are very cognizant of being careful with what we do. For example, the ship’s propellers are cleaned with hand scrapers.” Still, experts assert that work on the hull of a ship which hasn’t been properly cleaned of marine growth or properly coated in decades could possibly weaken or broach the hull.

One thing is clear: MARAD is in a tough spot when it comes to the lawful disposal of these vessels. At every turn, roadblocks seem to appear even when they are following federally prescribed guidelines. Russell says emphatically, “At this time, MARAD is following interagency guidelines through a voluntary agreement. We (MARAD) and the Coast Guard are constantly updating one another. Everything we do reflects environmentally sound practices.” Consistent with that position, she says that MARAD is conducting a testing program with Portland University and the Smithsonian Institute to determine the value of the hull cleaning procedures. The results of this study are due this fall, but no definite date has been set for the release of the information.

For the vessels moored in Suisun Bay, where the waters are brackish, the likelihood of living organisms from the hulls surviving a long ocean towing trip is still very much in question. Until the results of the testing program are known, however, the hull cleaning will go on. And the cost to the taxpayers to finally rid the nation of this alleged “toxic” fleet, will continue to grow.

Contact Managing Editor Joseph Keefe at: jkeefe@maritime-executive.com