Monday, July 21, 2008

Mare Island next for 'mothball'?

Mare Island next for 'mothball'?
To some locals, M.I.'s old docks may be just right for rotting vessels
By JESSICA A. YORK/Times-Herald staff writer
Article Launched: 07/21/2008

Bertrand Perry Jr. was burned once by the ship recycling industry on Mare Island, but that won't keep the welder from trying again if a new shipyard comes to town.

Perry, who worked for the Mare Island ship breaking company Pegasus in the late 1990s, was one of many to watch dreams of a renewed industry at the closed naval base go up in smoke. The Oakland-based Pegasus received Vallejo City Council go-ahead in 1995, and held a lease for only two years.

Mare Island's graving docks - dug-in enclosed areas with doors that allow water to be pumped out of the holding area while workers repair, build and tear down vessels - are expensive facilities not readily available for the taking on the West Coast. One of the facility's admirers is Gary Whitney, of Allied Defense Recycling, who has been angling to lease the docks since 1998.

"A graving dry dock is the most environmentally aware of ship demolition. The reopening of the shipyard on Mare Island could be considered a strategic asset and national treasure," Whitney said.

Whitney, a principal owner with the Petaluma-based Marine Survey and Management Company, said Allied Defense Recycling has been accepting shipping jobs and taking them elsewhere as they make a bid for a Mare Island lease.

If Mare Island's former shipyard is the obvious location for a shipyard to reopen, then the U.S. Maritime Administration's Reserve Fleet in Suisun Bay has the coveted material to recycle in those docks.

The fleet of mostly World War II-era "mothball fleet" reserve vessels are held in the bay as a reserve in times of national emergency. As the ships continue to sit, many reach a point where the government has no further need for them.

In a draft environmental assessment of its three reserve fleets, the Maritime Administration last month wrote that dry dock ship cleaning has some drawbacks, especially likely if the ship is not scrapped on-site. Dry dock cleaning has not occurred with obsolete federal reserve vessels to date, according to the report.

"Prohibiting factors related to drydocking include availability of drydocks and the resulting competition with other business; structural integrity of the ships; and cost," the report reads.

If a structurally unsound vessel is set down on blocks and the water drained away in a dry dock such as Mare Island's, the ship could fall too far apart for a second move, the report says.

In addition to recycling a ship, other identified disposal methods include ship donation, sinking to create an artificial reef, sale for commercial use and military and civilian training exercises.

Although no recycling facility exists on Mare Island, Whitney's Allied Defense Recycling has been provisionally approved as a bidder for recycling. The company is still in lease negotiations with the island's master developer, Lennar Mare Island.

Members of the local environmental watchdog agency Arc Ecology have been keeping close tabs on the island's potential shipping use, particularly after Pegasus' fall.

Arc Ecology executive director Saul Bloom said ship recycling would be a positive use of the Mare Island docks, if done with appropriate oversight.

"Our position is there's no reason why these vessels can't be broken locally," Bloom said. "On the other hand, there's going to need to be a lot more scrutiny in terms of the work."

Bloom said the main alternative to local ship recycling is towing ships thousands of miles around the coast to Texas, an expensive and environmentally insensitive procedure. Bloom envisions a trail of pollution crumbs trailing behind the federal ships on their trips through the Panama Canal.

"We understand that Lennar and the folks at Mare Island ... have concerns about the cross-compatibility of what they want to do and what the ship recycling would do for it," Bloom said. "We think these concerns are not realistic."

Lennar Mare Island has overseen 10 years of cleanup of toxic contamination left on the island by the military. A spokesman for the developer cited concerns of recontaminating land that will one day be deeded back to the city.

Arc Ecology, in conjunction with San Francisco Baykeeper and the Natural Resources Defense Council, is suing the Maritime Administration to get the agency to take better care of the disintegrating fleet's toxic scraps said to be falling into the bay.

"At this point there is significant evidence to indicate that these ships are a hazard," Bloom said. "We have substantial concerns about these vessels. You can break them here, you can break them there, or you can let them rot."

• Contact Jessica A. York at 553-6834 or at