End of an Era?
As Benicians and others have bid adieu to old ships leaving the Mothball Fleet, many have thought of it as the an end of an era. By the end of 2015, some figured the Suisun Bay Reserve Fleet had reached the end of the line, and there would be no more vessels in the bay awaiting their next fate. But that is not the case. The fleet, east of Benicia, is much smaller than in prior years. However, eleven ships still remain and the fleet is still active, according to the Maritime Administration (MARAD.) Some of the remaining ships have recently been repositioned, providing a different view of them from the Benicia-Martinez Bridge and the Benicia Business Park shoreline. As such, some have thought there are new ships in the fleet, and have peppered agencies with phone calls and other inquiries. However, no new vessels have entered the fleet since 2010, said Kimberly Strong, MARAD Public Affairs Officer.
Reserve Fleet Totals 99 Ships
The Suisun Bay Reserve Fleet has been a part of the Benicia Business Park waterfront, and a familiar site as drivers cross the Benicia Martinez Bridge and travel north on Interstate 680. A scenic overlook at the end of Lake Herman Road even has display signs about the fleet. Further, MARAD has long staffed administrative offices in the Benicia Business Park. The Benicia crew is still active in maintaining vessels in the fleet with regular maintenance and other work. The vessels in Benicia are part of the National Defense Reserve Fleet, which has been shrinking steadily this decade. The MARAD keeps a total of 99 ships at three defense reserve sites, and maintains vessels in a state of readiness should they be needed during national emergencies, or by military branches. In Suisun Bay, the fleet is regulated within a navigation area that is about 4 miles long and a half-mile wide.
At the peak of the Cold War, the Suisun Bay Reserve Fleet totaled more than 500 ships. However, as they aged they presented environmental problems, particularly as lead-based paints began to flake off into the water. In 2010, lawsuits resulted in a consent decree to remove the aging ships at a faster rate. They have been towed away to be scrapped, though some efforts were made to preserve the ones with prominent history. Currently, the fleet contains seven “retention vehicles” that are being preserved for the military or other federal agency programs, plus two “non-retention,” or obsolete, vessels awaiting disposal. There are also two “custody vessels,” which are owned or sponsored by other government programs.
The USS Iowa World War II battleship (towed several years ago to Southern California for a museum) was an example of a U.S. Navy-sponsored custody vessel, according to MARAD. The vessels in Suisun Bay are retained for an indefinite amount of time, and more may be added in the future, though it isn’t clear when that might happen or how many could be moved there, Strong said. “The fleet will always be active. There are always going to be ships there,” she added. Under the agreement, MARAD will continue to clean, maintain and also dispose of them in an environmentally sound manner. No ships with flaking paint will be allowed in the future.