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Shipbreaking on Mare Island

By Alun Whittaker

July 5, 2008


I draw your attention to:
JUNE 2008
MCLEAN, VA 22102
available from:

As might be expected from a product of the current federal administration, this document presents a rosily optimistic view of the potential hazards of using the Mare Island waterfront as a breaker's yard for derelict vessels from the reserve fleet. At the same time, it overly apple-polishes the absurdly limited benefits to be gained by the city from the activity.

For example, regarding environmental risks, it states:
"The closest protected areas are the San Pablo NWR and the Napa-Sonoma Marshes, located approximately five miles from the recycling facility... no more than a negligible impact on designated protected areas is expected."

This statement ignores the fact that, while not environmentally protected areas, Vallejo Waterfront and Downtown districts would be directly exposed to visual, airborne, water, noise and odor pollution from the ship breaking and debris storage activities in and around the Mare Island dry docks, as would new and existing residential and business neighborhoods of Mare Island. While not necessarily exceeding legal limits, such pollution would likely serve to drive boaters, recreators, visitors, and potential business owners away from Vallejo. And that is the best case! Do the words: "no more than a negligible impact" from the pen of the Bush administration chill your blood as they did mine?

Similarly, as an example of supposed benefits, the report states:
"The breakdown and recycling of the Maritime Administration's NDRF vessels would reintroduce some employment at the Mare Island recycling facility. These are considered construction related jobs that are nonunion, paying between $10 and $30 per hour, with some of the more skilled positions involved in the disposal of hazardous materials and un-wiring of electrical and communications networks (Gallob, 2005). The skills required to dismantle a ship include a blend of technical knowledge and physical capacity. Technical knowledge is needed to properly eliminate hazardous materials and safely remove heavy sections of steel hulls. Ship scrapping is still a labor-intensive process, with much of the work being done using hand-held cutting tools."

Have you seen pictures of the "labor-intensive" work with "hand-held cutting tools" being performed on the ship-breaking beaches of India, Turkey and Pakistan? Mare Island Ship Yard has been closed for many years, and was never involved in ship breaking. Towards the end, most of the work involved highly specialized and delicate electronics. Even if there had been workers with the necessary "blend of technical knowledge and physical capacity", they are now long retired and their skills lost. So we can expect that the most senior, skilled, and best paid jobs in this, already low quality work force are likely to go to experienced workers from other areas, not from Vallejo. Our city will be expected to fill the lowest paid, highest risk, least educated roustabouts of the ship breaking work force. Is that how we see our future? Is that the type of clientele that Vallejo's new entertainment district will be preparing for? Are we planning to turn Georgia Street back to its 19th century, street-fighting heyday?

Finally, in this necessarily brief review, I point out the statement:
"It should be noted that only facilities with current and proper permits are considered for recycling contracts. This is verified during the pre-award process. The Mare Island facility is currently provisionally approved for recycling of Maritime Administration obsolete vessels. The facility is in the process of obtaining the necessary permits and is not currently operational."

It should also be remembered that no company with actual ship breaking, nor even ship building, experience has publicly announced a self-funding business plan to re-activate the Mare Island ship yard. In every case, proposals have been predicated on the hoped-for appearance of hypothetical ship sales, and/or sub-lessee cash flow to keep the project financially solvent. Most proposals could not even have got into business without substantial financial contributions or sacrifices by the City, State or Federal governments.

If we build it, they may indeed come but: will they stay, and for how long; and what will it cost us to make them stay ... or to get them to leave! I am concerned that if this plan goes ahead, it will ruin our precious waterfront for ever. Even if it does not go ahead, then poorly managed, and protracted protest activity against it could prove to be almost as damaging to any hope of progress for downtown and the waterfront.