NOAA studies Mothball Fleet pollution


For all the history floating out there in the Suisun Bay Reserve Fleet, there is a mystery as well -- and not the kind that helps environmentalists or fishermen sleep at night.

Rob Ricker of the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) set out among the old ships. Joe Pecoraro, who manages the fleet, knows all of them.

"There is the Wichita, Wabash, then there's the Andrew J. Higgins," says Pecoraro.

Although up close they look nothing like their glory days, some of these ships have been here since the 1970s and have become what critics call, "a floating waste dump."

"I think it has gotten worse just recently because coatings only have a certain age," says Pecoraro.

The more these ships sit here, the more their paint peels, which falls into the bay. So, what is the effect on the water?

"We had about 70 different sites we sampled," says Ricker.

Six weeks ago, in compliance with a mandate from Congress, NOAA dropped sacks of mussels and clams in areas under and around the ships. On Tuesday, they pulled the last of them up. The theory is that mussels act like organic sponges, absorbing and revealing their aquatic environments.

"A lot of these paints had lead and some other heavy metals. We don't know exactly, but that's what we're going to start to look at," says Ricker.

To a casual eye the mussels look no worse for their exposure. The real testing takes place later. NOAA expects informal results by the end of October, and will publish a paper this winter.

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