Only three ships are left from the Ghost Fleet of Suisun Bay—the decaying military ships that poisoned the San Francisco Bay ecosystem for 40 years. Baykeeper legal action led to a federal government cleanup and removal of the 57 ships, starting in 2010. The cleanup process was expected to last until 2017, but it’s now ahead of schedule.
The Ghost Fleet was a collection of long-defunct military ships from World War II and the Korean War. They were originally stored in Suisun Bay, a large northern inlet of San Francisco Bay, with the idea that they could be reactivated for wartime use. But as time passed, the fleet became a floating toxic waste dump. More than 20 tons of lead, zinc, copper, cadmium, and other toxic substances fell, blew, or washed off the ships into the water.
The ships are no longer poisoning San Francisco Bay, thanks to a successful lawsuit by Baykeeper and two other environmental groups, Arc Ecology and NRDC. In 2010, Baykeeper and our partners successfully reached a settlement agreement requiring that the federal government clean up and remove all the ships by 2017.
When the cleanup began, most of the ships were no longer seaworthy, and water had to be pumped from them regularly to keep them afloat. They leaked fuel. On Baykeeper’s first inspection, walking on the decks, staff members could hear the crunch of hazardous paint chips and rust under their feet.
Pollutants in the mud directly below the Ghost Fleet were found to be in concentrations that exceeded California’s hazardous waste toxicity criteria. The levels were high enough for bottom-dwelling creatures to consume the toxins, which introduced them into the Bay’s food chain.
A lot of wildlife was exposed to those toxins. Suisun Bay provides critical habitat for several species of endangered fish, including Chinook salmon and Delta smelt. The wetlands of Suisun Bay are home to hundreds of native bird species, and they are an important feeding stop for thousands of migrating water birds each year.
Baykeeper’s cleanup agreement required the federal government to first remove loose and peeling paint from all the ships. Within a year, the paint and rust chips were collected in barrels and taken to a hazardous waste disposal facility.
The government was also required to start by removing the worst ships first, to clean up the most urgent pollution threats as quickly as possible. Next, we required controls put in place to prevent contamination from the remaining ships. As a result, the ongoing pollution has already been significantly reduced.
Baykeeper has conducted an on-site inspection of the ships each year. The cleanup has largely gone well. Each year we have found problems with some ships, and our recommendations for improvements in pollution control were followed. Most of the ships that were removed have been dismantled and recycled. Some have been dismantled locally at a former naval shipyard on Mare Island.
Although the Ghost Fleet will soon be just a memory, the danger of pollution remains. Since the cleanup began, more surplus military ships have been stored in Suisun Bay. Baykeeper will advocate for effective pollution controls to be used on these additional ships, and if the ships start shedding toxics into the Bay, we will take legal action.
Baykeeper will keep working to prevent future pollution from mothballed ships, because the stakes for the Bay are high. Experts estimate that the cleanup and removal of the Ghost Fleet has prevented an additional 50 tons of heavy metals from being blown and washed into the Bay. It’s a major victory for a healthier San Francisco Bay ecosystem.