MARAD: Obsolete Hulls Can Depart James River Reserve Fleet

The U.S. Maritime Administration (MARAD) has ended its moratorium on the disposal of aging, obsolete hulls in the James River Reserve Fleet, clearing the way for more vessels to be removed. The temporary freeze on ship disposal was instituted last month while MARAD continued its dialogue with three different states over environmental issues that primarily focused on how the ship hulls are cleaned. The move comes closely on the heels of a state of Virginia edict that no special permits were needed to clean the vessels for removal and eventual disposal. In a letter addressed to U.S. Representative Jo Ann Davis (R - VA), MARAD Administrator Sean Connaughton said, “I am announcing today that the Maritime Administration is ending its suspension on ship disposal in the James River Reserve Fleet at Fort Eustis, Virginia.”

The ongoing dispute centers around how the vessels hulls are cleaned of potentially invasive species -- and what might be falling off these hulls during the process. Virginia officials have agreed to let the work proceed in an effort to remove the decaying vessels from the Commonwealth’s waters. The U.S. Coast Guard mandated procedure of scraping the hulls with soft brushes to remove marine growth before moving them has been in place since last year. Critics claim that the operation could be leaving chips of lead paint or other corrosive materials in the water, in the process. As a result, these fears continue to hold up disposal work on obsolete ships in MARAD’s Californian fleets.

Immediately following MARAD’s announcement, Congressman Solomon Ortiz (D - TX) welcomed the move by MARAD. Brownsville has an active ship scrapping business that is an active component of the local economy, and often gets Virginian ships for scrapping. And, while Ortiz does not speak for the state of Texas’ government, he was clearly happy about the decision. Unofficially, there is frustration at the state of California’s refusal to negotiate on the issue. Shannon Russell, MARAD spokesperson, told MarEx on Wednesday only that, “We have a continuous dialogue with California, but until we come to an agreement there, we’ll continue to focus on Texas and Virginia.” Unspoken in all of this are the dangers fraught by letting the vessels continue to deteriorate in Californian waters while the dispute simmers. There is a real disagreement as to which poses a clearer and more present danger: minor scrapings from the hulls in the water or a disaster involving one of these WWII-era vessels.

Congressman Ortiz added, “This situation placed MARAD in a compromising position which did not allow them to continue to carry out the Congressional mandate to dispose of the fleet. Ships now parked and awaiting disposal pose a large danger to the environment as they may leak pollutants or oil into the water if they deteriorate further. There is a greater need in South Texas for them to come to a resolution: thousands of workers would have been out of work by the end of the month if this wasn't resolved.” Ortiz is the Chairman of the House Armed Services Readiness Subcommittee. The moratorium is expected to be lifted on the Texas Beaumont ghost fleet within days, allowing still more ships to be scrapped.

Russell also told MarEx on Wednesday that MARAD continues to operate on a “worst first” policy, meaning that the worst hulls will be removed as a first priority. At the Virginia James River Fleet, there are at least two of these high-priority vessels which will receive immediate attention in the wake of the MARAD administrator’s announcement. Meanwhile, in Suisan Bay in California, scores of WWII-era vessels continue to decay, posing a clear threat to the environment.

Brewing in the background of the domestic dispute over how and where the ship disposals can continue are the (long forgotten) four MARAD reserve vessels that were towed to ABLE UK’s Hartspool, England scrapping yard and then stranded there as local municipalities try to figure out whether these vessels can be safely disposed of in the United Kingdom. Local activists want the obsolete vessels towed back to the United States, but this is unlikely to happen. Instead, says MARAD’s Russell, “The MARAD Administration is actively looking at the Able UK contracts and we are working to ensure that these contracts are fulfilled -- responsibly in the UK.” She also said that it was unlikely that MARAD will pursue additional contracts there for the balance of Connaughton’s tenure at MARAD, but did not rule out other foreign disposal options.