- The Washington Times - Monday, August 9, 2004

NEWPORT NEWS, Va. — Three more obsolete, deteriorating ships soon will leave the James River Ghost Fleet to be scrapped in Texas under a $3.2 million contract announced yesterday by the U.S. Maritime Administration.

When they’re gone, only two ships with hulls in extremely poor condition will remain. Agency head Capt. William G. Schubert said he is optimistic that those ships also will depart the James River soon.

“It remains an important goal of this administration to remove these high-priority ships as soon as possible,” Capt. Schubert said at a press conference at the fleet site, where he was joined by Sen. John W. Warner and Rep. Jo Ann Davis, both Virginia Republicans.

The Santa Isabel, the Mormacwave and the American Ranger — three cargo ships built in the 1960s — soon will be towed to ESCO Marine of Brownsville, Texas.

In June, Capt. Schubert announced that another Brownsville shipyard, Marine Metals, had been awarded a $3.1 million contract to dismantle three other high-priority cargo ships from the Ghost Fleet.

The first of those ships, the Santa Cruz, left the James River last week. The two other ships under that contract, the American Banker and the Mormacmoon, will leave soon, Capt. Schubert said.

All six of the vessels had been slated to head overseas as part of a contract with British shipyard Able UK to scrap 13 ships, but the deal has been delayed by legal and permitting problems. Other ships eventually will be substituted to fulfill the British contract, Capt. Schubert said.

Four ships were towed to England last fall, stirring protests by residents and environmentalists. They have not been scrapped yet, pending regulatory approval.

A federal judge in Washington blocked nine other ships from leaving for England pending an Oct. 1 hearing in a lawsuit that environmental groups filed against the Maritime Administration. The groups contend that shipping vessels with toxic waste overseas violates federal law.

The Maritime Administration is under a congressional mandate to get rid of about 150 obsolete ships moored in Virginia, Texas, California and Alabama by September 2006.

The contract announced yesterday leaves about 60 Ghost Fleet vessels anchored off Fort Eustis that need to be scrapped, the Maritime Administration said.

The ships contain oil, asbestos, lead and other toxic chemicals and have been an environmental concern in Virginia for years.

Since the beginning of 2001, contracts have been awarded for 37 ships from the Ghost Fleet, and 24 of the ships have left, Schubert said.

Mr. Warner said Congress favors removing the ships.

“We will get the job done in terms of funding,” he said. “Our colleagues recognize the importance of fulfilling our duty to prevent a disaster.”

Mr. Warner also said environmentalists should realize that professionals in a shipyard can handle “the environmental hazards incorporated in these old ships,” while it’s impossible to predict “all the ramifications of a weather pattern that could unleash hazardous waste on the citizens of this community.”

A report prepared for the Maritime Administration in 2001 offered a worst-case scenario in which two ships from the Ghost Fleet break apart in a storm, spilling oil and polluting a 50-mile stretch of shoreline that includes historic Jamestown Island and various nature sanctuaries.

Mrs. Davis said she prefers to see the Ghost Fleet ships scrapped domestically, but her priority is “to see them gone. Period.”

“There has been a lot of politics surrounding the Ghost Fleet, and this has been unfortunate,” she said.

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