Most people have only seen the fleet of 70 World War Two-era cargo ships from a distance while driving along Interstate 680. But you can get a closer look and see just how rusty the ships are by watching a 1996 film with Kelsey Grammer called “Down Periscope”. The harbor footage for the comedy was filmed in Suisun Bay.
Kelsey Grammer: “I’m here to pickup my new submarine.”
Character 1: “There she is right now.”
Kelsey Grammer: “No disrespect to the U.S.S. Rust-ollium here but this is ridiculous.”
Jerry Hayes is a longtime resident and former mayor of Benicia. He grew up in the city back in the 1940s and ‘50s.
“As a youngster we kind of associated the reserve fleet with World War II. And so for us it was a real landmark.”
When he was younger, Hayes and his friends would get on a motorboat and take a closer look.
“…and it’s really kind of an eerie feeling, like a real ghost fleet with absolutely nothing moving and totally abandoned.”
Worse still, the boats are shedding toxic paint into the water … impacting the Suisun and San Francisco Bays and the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. Deb Self heads the environmental group San Francisco BayKeeper. She says there are more than 20-tons of heavy metals in the sediment beneath the fleet.
“It’s poisoning the food chain. So common sense would point to there being pretty widespread contamination both in the Bay and the Delta just because of the currents.”
So the federal government is working to dismantle 57 of the 70 ships. Starting this week, it will tow the vessels to San Francisco, where crews will take the ships out of the water and clean them up. Then the vessels will be broken apart in Texas. John Porcari is Deputy Secretary for the U.S. Department of Transportation.
“Making sure that the paint that is flaking is removed and the hulls are cleaned is one way that we can actually contribute to the restoration of the Bay Area.”
Federal officials say it’ll take several years to remove the obsolete vessels because of limited dry-dock space. But Deb Self with San Francisco BayKeeper says that’s not good enough.
“What we’re not happy with is there really are not immediate plans to remove all 50 ships.”
Self says her group is considering litigation that would compel the federal government to act quicker.