Suisun Bay’s Ghost Fleet Fades Into History

Jerry Bowles

For years people who didn’t know where Benicia was could often relate to where the mothball fleet is. But what has been almost synonymous with Benicia is quickly shrinking. The National Defense Reserve Fleet (NDRF), as it’s known by the U.S. Department of Transportation Maritime Administration (MARAD), or “Ghost Fleet” is now a shadow of its former self and getting smaller by the day.

According to MARAD, in 1950 there were 2277 NDRF ships located at eight anchorages across the U.S., set aside to respond to national defense and natural disasters. The ships were located at Stony Point, New York; Fort Eustis, Virginia; Wilmington, North Carolina; Mobile, Alabama; Beaumont, Texas; Benicia, California; Astoria, Oregon and Olympia, Washington. Of the original eight, only the fleets in Virginia, Texas, and California remain. What was once a mighty fleet of over 2,000 has been reduced to 121 vessels as of November 2013, according to MARAD. Of that total, Benicia is down to less than a dozen ships designated as “non-retention” vessels.

At the peak of the Cold War, the reserve fleet, anchored just off the Suisun Marsh, totaled more than 500 ships. As recently as 1999, there were still over 100 ships before the federal government started downsizing the Navy. Today, there are just under a dozen vessels under the non-retention status, meaning that the government has no plans to activate the ships even in an emergency.  An equal number of ships capable of being activated will remain behind, according to KQED. The process has been accelerated in recent years due to lawsuits filed and won in federal court by state regulators and environmental groups, with a deadline of September, 2017 for the non-retention vessels.

As the older ships aged, it was discovered that toxic metals were being released into Suisun Bay as lead-based paints began to flake off. The ships were seen as a threat to the area water quality, and in 2010, lawsuits filed in federal court won. A consent decree accelerated the schedule to remove the aging ships, and forced changes to their maintenance programs.  According to KQED, the trouble has been worth the effort.

Regional experts who have been monitoring water runoff from the ships say the water is much cleaner after most of them departed. Part of the process of protecting the local water quality has been to remove loose paint from above the waterline. Water sample tests conducted by the Bay Area Water Quality Control Board have seen decreases of 64 to 80 percent of lead, copper, and zinc coming off the ships, according to KQED. As the obsolete vessels leave the fleet they go through one last cleaning at a nearby dry dock where toxic paint and local marine growth are removed before being towed to Texas for scrapping, or to be cleaned and sunk to create an artificial reef.

Since the fleet was created in 1946, there have been numerous activations. MARAD lists 540 vessels in support of the Korean War, 18 for the Berlin crisis of 1961, and 172 during the Vietnam War. As recently as 1990, 78 ships were activated to transport cargo in support of Operations Desert Storm/Desert Shield. Although many think of the NDRF fleet as a readiness for national defense, it turns out that the ships have been involved in many peaceful and humanitarian missions.

In the early 1950’s, due to worldwide shortages, 600 ships were activated to send coal to Northern Europe and grain to India. In 2005, the Federal Emergency Management Agency used nine ships in support of relief operations following hurricanes Katrina and Rita.  In 2010, six ships were activated in support of humanitarian efforts in the aftermath of the earthquake in Haiti, and twelve NDRF ships are actively being used for training.  Among them is the TS Golden Bear, berthed at the California Maritime Academy in Vallejo.

Although you can’t go onboard the fleet in Suisun Bay, there are two former residents of the reserve fleet in our local area operating as museum ships. The SS Jeremiah O’Brien, moored at Pier 45 near Fisherman’s Warf and the SS Red Oak Victory, berthed in Richmond, are both excellent examples of WWII Liberty ships. The Red Oak Victory has the distinction of having been built at the Kaiser Shipyards in Richmond. Both ships are open for docent or self guided tours. Visit their websites for more information.

For more information on the U.S. Department of Transportation Maritime Administration and the National Defense Reserve Fleet, click HERE.

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