The federal government is expected to spend $20 million to begin scrapping a fleet of rusting ships on Virginia’s James River that could pose environmental hazards.

The money, included in the $355.4 billion Defense Appropriations Bill recently passed by Congress, is expected to cover the cleaning and dismantling of at least six decaying vessels. The approximately 100 ships in the James River Reserve Fleet, nicknamed the “Ghost Fleet,” are moored near Fort Eustis.

“We are only a hurricane or tropical storm away from a real environmental disaster, and this funding will enable us to begin eliminating that risk,” said Virginia Sen. John Warner.

A 2001 federal study concluded that a spill from just two of the ships holding heavy oil could spread for 50 miles on the James. The entire fleet holds about 7.7 million gallons of petroleum products.

The U.S. Maritime Administration will put out bids for private contractors to take the job and will oversee the dismantling process. The most seriously damaged ships will be scrapped first.

“They’ll clean them out and literally take them apart,” said Chris Connelly, a spokeswoman for Virginia Rep. Jo Ann Davis.

Davis, who secured the $20 million for the fleet in the House of Representatives, said she didn’t know how long the cleanup would take.
Gov. Mark R. Warner urged Virginia’s congressional delegation to earmark money for the cleanup, and threatened last summer to sue the maritime administration for violating clean water laws by not removing oil from the ships.

Congress has instructed the Maritime Administration to remove the approximately 125 obsolete ships in three reserve fleets in Virginia, Texas and California by September 2006.