WWII ship waits in limbo at Mare Island
by Gabe Friedman, Napa Valley Register Staff Writer
8 May 2004 – The USS Crescent City, a World War II sea vessel considered to be of high value by historians, has been docked at the mouth of the Napa River at Mare Island since February. But this week, the ship stirred up an international controversy that may take months to resolve.
The ship was slated to head for south Asia to be dismantled, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. But transportation of the ship, which is no longer capable of sailing on its own, was halted when a watchdog organization tipped EPA officials that the ship was laden with toxic material.
In the last decade, environmental advocates have developed a keen sense of outrage over the ship scrapping industry, which operates primarily in India, China and Bangladesh. Old U.S. ships, often laden with PCB's and other toxins, are towed to foreign shores where workers dismantle the ships to retrieve steel under dangerous working conditions for low wages.
Now, the presence of the USS Crescent City has drawn attention to the debate over whether U.S. ships can be exported to scrap yards in other countries. The saga may continue to play out in Napa's backyard as individuals in the ship scrapping industry lobby the federal government for the job of dismantling about 80 other U.S. ships, a portion of the so-called "ghost fleet," docked in the Suisun Bay. Environmentalists say they would prefer to see the ships dismantled here, rather than sending them to uncertain conditions overseas.
"Our main concern is that we don't want these ships to end up in a country where the workers are not equipped to handle these materials," said Laura Gentile, a spokeswoman for the EPA.
After a two-day inspection of the USS Crescent City, EPA officials found that some of the materials it is made of contain PCBs at concentrations about 2,500 times what the EPA has deemed safe. PCBs, or polychlorinated biphenyls, have been linked to cancer in animals and are known to adversely affect the nervous, immune and endocrine systems of humans.
Since the EPA's Toxic Substances Control Act prohibits the export of materials containing PCBs at such high levels, Earthjustice, an Oakland-based environmental law firm, gave notice this week it would sue if the ship was sent to South Asia for demolition.
However, Gary Whitney, of American Defense Recycling, which is under contract with the ship's owner, the Texas-based Sanship Inc., said that a scrap yard in South Asia has always been just one option under consideration.
Whitney said he will continue to lobby the Navy and Maritime Administration about the demolition of about 80 ships of the U.S. government's reserve fleet in Suisun Bay. Environmentalists have called these ships floating toxic hazards that rust in storage each day, creating the potential for a catastrophe. Navy and Maritime officials could not be reached Friday for comment.
"They're floating toxic time bombs," said Jim Puckett, a spokesman for the Basel Action Network, an environmental group that is monitoring the USS Crescent City. "If they do it properly and they do it at Mare Island where they have dry docks, it would be an excellent opportunity."
But Whitney said he is skeptical that the government will agree. It would need to pay his company to demolish the ships, rather than earn a profit by selling the scrap metal overseas.
So Whitney is examining other options for demolishing the USS Crescent City. He pointed out that the PCBs are buried inside the ship's cables and that the EPA has said that exposure would not occur until these were broken open.
Another option being considered is to restore the ship so that it can be used to navigate the waters again. Whitney said that an "East Coast group" was interested in purchasing it.
This would delight historians who wish to preserve the ship as a cultural icon, one of the last great ships to sail in WW II. Fred Giunta, whose Artship Foundation owned the USS Crescent City but then defaulted on payments, wants desperately to save it from the scrap yards.
Giunta provided a letter from the National Trust for Historic Preservation that states, "The USS Crescent City is one of the most historically significant vessels remaining from World War II. She earned 10 battle stars and participated in nearly every major amphibious action in the war in the Pacific."
According to Doug Peterson, an archivist for the California Maritime Academy, the USS Crescent City was built at a shipyard near Baltimore in 1939. It was to be a luxury liner carrying passengers and cargo to and from Buenos Aires.
It was converted into a military troop transport ship by the U.S. Navy in
1941 for use in World War II. Over the years, the ship served in many capacities, including almost 25 years as a training ship for cadets at the California Maritime Academy under the name the TS Golden Bear, according to Peterson.
Whitney mentioned another option, which would be to rid the ship of its PCBs in the U.S. and then transport it to a shipyard on foreign shores. He said the ship's steel is worth between $1.2 million to $3 million, depending on changes in the market.
This option has piqued the interest of environmental justice advocates, who say they are interested to know if it is economically feasible to remove the toxins here and still make a profit by sending it overseas.
Puckett said he would prefer to have the ship sent to South Asia under proper working conditions, noting that the workers there dismantle ships because it is the best job they can get. Their work choices, if they have any, are probably bad, he said.
"This is what we're always faced with," said Puckett, "People who are so poor and so desperate that they will work in poisonous conditions. We draw the line at poison, though. I mean that kind of mentality -- transporting our waste to poorer countries -- is not morally acceptable."
Whitney said he would prefer to restore the ship because it would bring about 20 or 30 jobs to the Bay Area and avoid sending our waste to poorer countries. In any case, he estimated, the issue will take several months to resolve.
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