"It's going to be a change in landscape," Rep. George Miller, D-Martinez, said Wednesday in announcing the settlement. "It's going to be a change in our waterways. It's going to be a change in history."
According to the agreement filed in federal court, MARAD must remove 20 of the most polluting ships by Sept. 30, 2012. The remaining 32 obsolete ships at the site must be cleaned up, including the removal of flaking paint, within two years and completely removed from the fleet by Sept. 30, 2017.
"We are moving expeditiously to remove the worst-polluting ships first and diligently moving to clean the rest," acting MARAD administrator David Matsuda said.
The settlement comes after a lawsuit filed by environmental groups against MARAD in 2007.
"We're pleased with the aggressive timetable," Baykeeper Executive Director Deb Self said. "Not just in spirit, but enforceable by law."
A 2007 study estimated that more than 20 tons of heavy metals, including lead paint, copper, cadmium and zinc had dropped from the ships into the water.
As part of the settlement, MARAD has now agreed to inspect and clean the horizontal surface of the ships in Suisun Bay every 90 days to keep peeling paint from falling into the water. MARAD will also routinely collect water runoff samples for testing.
"This settlement and MARAD's commitment to carrying it out will remove a major source of contamination to Suisun Bay," Natural Resources Defense Council spokesperson Michael Wall said.
So far, five ships have been towed from the fleet since last November. The Mission Santa Ynez, a World War II-era tanker, was removed Wednesday to be scrapped in Texas.