Two rusty cargo ships anchored side-by-side in the James River Reserve Fleet rip open in a major storm. More than 282,000 gallons of heavy oil pour into the James.

Within 48 hours, a black blanket of petroleum washes north onto Jamestown Island, a national landmark. Across the river, the sticky oil laps against an intake pipe that draws cooling water for the Surry nuclear power plant.

The spill also rolls south to the tip of Newport News and Portsmouth. Along the way, it soils sandy beaches, state wildlife sanctuaries, a historical park, prime bird and duck habitat, scenic waterfront properties, oyster seed grounds, clam beds, inland creeks and tidal marshes.

Doomsday fiction?

Hardly.

The potential disaster is described in a report prepared last November for the U.S. Maritime Administration. It concludes that damage could stretch for 50 miles along the river and take weeks to clean up. Assessing the ecological consequences could take years.
While some may dismiss the worst-case scenario as hyperbole, a growing number of regulators, marine inspectors, environmentalists and workers who oversee the fleet of mothballed ships say the nightmare is becoming more likely — and probably is imminent if help does not arrive soon.

“They are truly ticking time bombs,” Patricia A. Jackson, executive director of the James River Association, an environmental group, told the Virginian-Pilot of Norfolk.

The fleet had a close call the last time a major storm swept through Hampton Roads. In 1999, more than 30 ships got loose under 40-mph winds and white-capped waves stirred by Tropical Storm Floyd.

Some vessels dragged their anchors and wandered into the main shipping lane. Others bumped into nearby beaches. None leaked.

It took about two weeks to tie the ships back together. The government, in response, invested $3 million for a new mooring system.

“That should help,” said Michael J. Bagley, fleet superintendent. “But there’s only so much we can do if a big one hits here.”

The James River Reserve Fleet — better known by its local nickname, the Ghost Fleet — was created in 1925 off Fort Eustis in Newport News. It is the largest and oldest floating parking lot in the country, designed to hold government ships that might be used again in time of national crisis.

It also includes most of the flimsiest ships in the national reserve, stored in what one Virginia official describes as “probably the worst place, from an environmental standpoint, that you could think of.”

The gray hulks used to be sold and scrapped, mostly overseas, for a modest profit. But tougher rules for worker safety and environmental protection have all but ended that option.

Today, 97 ships sit idle in the middle of the James. As they bob there, straddling the only shipping lane between Hampton Roads and Richmond, their fuel-filled tanks and hulls continue to deteriorate, and occasionally leak.

Together, the fleet holds about 7.7 million gallons of oils and fuels, according to the latest government estimates. That’s slightly less than the Exxon Valdez spilled off the coast of Alaska in 1989.

Furthermore, they are loaded with lead paint, asbestos and toxic PCBs, among other hazardous materials, according to the Maritime Administration, a branch of the U.S. Transportation Department that is responsible for safeguarding the fleet.

Congress has not approved requested money that would pay U.S. shipyards to dismantle the most fragile cargo haulers and military support vessels, some of which were built during World War II.

Removing the 71 ships considered obsolete — those without any hope of returning to service — could cost $177 million, according to estimates. Since 2000, Congress has appropriated just $10 million, enough to get rid of six vessels.

Without sufficient cash, the Maritime Administration this winter issued an unusual open invitation. It urged anyone with a bright, cheap, new idea for safely disposing of the ships to step forward. Proposals will be accepted through July.