- The Washington Times - Monday, February 26, 2007

NEWPORT NEWS, Va. (AP) — The federal agency that oversees Virginia’s “Ghost Fleet” said the most serious environmental threats have been removed, so it plans to spend no money next year to remove the 44 rusting ships remaining in the James River Reserve Fleet.

President Bush proposed spending $20 million on ship disposal for the National Defense Reserve Fleet in 2008, a slight increase from the amount provided by Congress this year.

The U.S. Maritime Administration, an arm of the U.S. Department of Transportation, said it intends to use the money to dispose of ships in California and Texas that are considered a higher environmental risk because of their poor condition.

“There are no high-priority vessels right now that need to be removed from the James River,” Shannon Russell, director of congressional and public affairs for the maritime agency, told the Daily Press of Newport News. “At this time, we are looking at other ships that have higher priority than those in the James.”

The ships anchored off Fort Eustis are contaminated with asbestos and cancer-causing polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs. Local officials long have pushed to dispose of the ships as soon as possible, fearing the environmental damage that could unfold with severe weather such as a hurricane coming up the James.

About 55 ships have been removed from the James River fleet since 2002. That leaves the most hazardous ships in the national fleet based in Suisun Bay, Calif., and in Beaumont, Texas.

“Obviously, the current environmental risk is dramatically reduced from where it was in the late 1990s,” said Kevin Hall, a spokesman for Gov. Timothy M. Kaine, a Democrat. “But equally obvious, in just a couple of years, the situation could present the same sort of environmental threat to the James River that it did previously.”

Mr. Hall said the Kaine administration would work with the state’s congressional delegation to ensure that the maritime agency doesn’t “just walk away from this responsibility.”

Disposal of the ships was slowed when the Clinton administration prohibited the sale of most ships to developing countries in the wake of widespread environmental damage and deaths at shipyards in Bangladesh, India and elsewhere.

As many as three ships could be removed in coming months because of prior agreements that have not been completed.

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