12-06-2016  6:15 am      •     

A typical Liberty Ship

TACOMA, Wash. (AP) -- If Scott Sloan felt any regret as he watched the last of two remaining Liberty Ships cut into scrap, he concealed it well.
The expression on his face looked more like pure relief.
``These were war veterans, but they were almost 70 years old,'' Sloan said, watching as a gantry crane lifted one of the last chunks of the SS Woodbridge Ferris into the air and swung it toward a waiting barge.
``They weren't designed to withstand the ocean environment for this long.''
Sloan is the regional environmental manager for Schnitzer Steel Industries, a metal recycler with a large collecting and shipping facility on the Tacoma Tideflats.
Schnitzer inherited Woodbridge Ferris and another rusty World War II relic, the SS Mahlon Pitney, when it took over the facility from General Metals of Tacoma in 1995.
It fell to Sloan to figure out what to do with the two former cargo ships, each longer than a football field.
World War II vets and shipyard workers viewed the old ships with nostalgia, but state environmental regulators tended to see them as floating toxic waste dumps.
The best thing seemed to be to get rid of them.
But an array of environmental regulations and a lack of suitable facilities in Puget Sound made traditional methods of disposal all but impossible, Sloan said. Simply sinking old ships is no longer allowed, nor is dismantling them on the water. Relics' hulls often are too fragile to withstand the ocean haul to ship-breakers in China or through the Panama Canal to a federally approved ship-breaking facility in Brownsville, Texas.
Schnitzer's solution was pulling the ships onto dry land and slicing them up like loaves of bread. Doing the work on the ground instead of on the water eliminated a lot of environmental problems.
The work was done at Concrete Technology, another Tideflats company, which owns the only suitable dock in Puget Sound.
It took up to 30 days to cut up the Mahlon Pitney. Then the crews turned to the Woodbridge Ferris. Work on the second ship finished up July 27.
So far, the first-of-its-kind salvage operation has drawn no cries of protest from maritime history enthusiasts and is getting good reviews from environmentalists and state environmental regulators.
Some are even promoting it as a new industry for Tacoma: green ship-breaking.
``There's an urgency for this throughout the Northwest,'' said Eric Muller, director of sales and marketing for Ballard Diving & Salvage, the prime contractor on the deconstruction job.
``There's a big backlog of vessels in similar situations on the West Coast,'' he said. ``They're all potential environmental disasters for the surrounding communities should they go down with hazardous materials still on board.''
Jeff Barney, a waterborne patrolman at the Tacoma environmental watchdog group Citizens for a Healthy Bay, has for years been keeping a wary eye on Schnitzer's Liberty Ships and other relics tied up in Commencement Bay.
``All derelict vessels pose serious pollution problems,'' Barney said. ``Even if their fuel tanks have been pumped out, they've still got oil residue in tanks, plus batteries, paints and whatever garbage has piled up over the years.''
Simply keeping big vessels like the Liberty Ships from sinking can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars a year in patching, pumping and monitoring costs, he said.
The Liberty Ships had been gutted and cleaned and were regularly pumped out, Barney said.
``Still,'' he said, ``450 feet of iron just sitting there corroding in the water is not a good thing.''
``The fact that responsible ship-breaking can be done -- and done right -- here in Tacoma has tremendous advantages. And it's good for local businesses, I'm sure.''
Schnitzer came up with its solution in cooperation with the Washington-based environmental group Dalton, Olmsted & Fuglevand Inc. and the state Department of Ecology.
``Puget Sound is lacking a dedicated place to deconstruct big ships like this,'' said John Diamant, industrial permit coordinator with the Ecology Department. ``We kind of developed this way through this project.''
``Because it was such a novel approach to deconstructing a ship, we went back and forth on several things before the plan was approved,'' Diamant said. ``We really put them through the hoops, and they obliged.''
The work seems to have worked out fine, he said.
``We're still waiting for some of the monitoring data to come in, but I expect it to have gone pretty well,'' Diamant said. ``I want to see the final results to make the final absolute confirmation of that.''
Melissa Ferris, head of the state Department of Natural Resources' Derelict Vessel Removal Program, was similarly impressed.
She said she appreciated the Liberty Ships' historical value, but the threat of environmental consequences outweighed the social value of keeping them around.
``Their time had come,'' she said.
Aside from the pollution issue posed by old ships, she said, there is the problem of keeping them in place.
``If they break free in a storm, they can pose serious hazards to navigation,'' she said.
Four years ago, Ferris noted, an old freighter serving as a breakwater for the Crow's Nest Marina at Browns Point broke free its anchors in a storm and moved broadside into the marina, crushing three piers and sinking five 40-foot boats.
The key to this approach to ship recycling is Concrete Tech, which has the only suitably sized graving dock in Puget Sound. Environmental regulations make building another such facility highly unlikely, if not impossible, regulators say.
With the corner on the market, is Concrete Tech looking at this as a successful precedent and seeking out more deconstruction jobs? Millard Barney, Concrete Tech's marketing director, responds with a cautious ``Maybe.''
``It's too early to tell,'' said Barney, who is not related to Jeff Barney of Citizens for a Healthy Bay. ``We're waiting to see what happens with this job.''
And as for Schnitzer, Mike Sloan said that while the deconstruction was an environmental success, it should not be confused with a moneymaking operation.
The value of the metal, which will be cut up into smaller pieces at the Schnitzer yard and shipped to Asia, won't begin to cover the cost of deconstruction, he said.
``This is all about taking care of a potential environmental risk,'' Sloan said. ``Profit has nothing to do with it. It's going to be a hit to the company's bottom line.''

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