BENICIA, Calif. (CN) - The Naval Reserve Fleet at Suisun Bay once housed almost 350 ships that saw action during World War II, Korea and Vietnam. But for the past several decades, the mothballed Ghost Fleet has sat as an eerily beautiful but environmentally damaging memorial in Suisun Bay northeast of San Francisco.
Lead paint peeled off the ships and fell into the water and the decks rusted. The Department of Transportation's Maritime Administration surveyed the environmental damage and found more than 20 tons of toxic materials from the ships in the bay, which is critical habitat for fish.
The government last week announced plans to remove the remaining 52 retired Navy ships as part of an agreement with environmental groups. And a nonprofit group is trying to save the battleship USS Iowa and turn it into a naval museum.
Under the decision announced last week to remove the ships by 2017, the Maritime Administration must clean the horizontal surfaces of the ships every 90 days to stop the peeling lead paint from dropping into the water, and must inspect the ships on a monthly and quarterly basis and collect runoff samples for testing. The Maritime Administration said it will remove 20 of the ships in the poorest condition by 2012. The ships will be sent to dry dock for cleaning, then will be taken to Brownsville, Texas, to be broken and scrapped.
Meanwhile, the Historic Ships Memorial at Pacific Square, a nonprofit, is partnering with the Navy to turn the USS Iowa into a naval museum berthed at Mare Island, 25 miles north of San Francisco.
The Iowa is not part of the fleet affected by last week's decision. Historic Ships Memorial spokeswoman Marilyn Wong calls the Iowa "the most historic battleship in the world."
It shuttled Franklin Roosevelt to and from the Tehran Conference during World War II and saw action during the Korean and Cold Wars. Wong said the Iowa has not deteriorated as fast or caused the same amount of environmental damage as other ships moored in Suisun Bay, partly because it was taken out of service only four years ago, in 2006, after its last recommissioning. The Navy kept the ship in good repair to use it for emergency and educational purposes.
Wong says the inside of the ship is in "pristine condition," and says it has "received at least $1.5 million in work in the last four or five years."
The nonprofit hopes to raise another $18 million on top of the $4 million it already has raised to restore the Iowa.
The Navy accepted the group's proposal as the only viable plan other than scrapping the Iowa or sinking it during target practice to serve as an underwater artificial reef.
Wong says the latter two proposals are "not an option for the Iowa." The ship is "too important for people around the world."
Wong says visitors travel from Australia, England and other countries to see the ship on once-a-month boat tours that take visitors around the outside, but not onto, the ship.
The nonprofit's goals are the same as the Navy's: to "promote public interest in the defense of the nation and to educate," Wong said.
She envisions a "stand-out" naval museum that will show off the ship's unique characteristics, including the disabled-accessible presidential cabin, which will host annual conflict resolution summits that attract leaders from around the world.
For now, the group will continue to raise money with the goal of having the museum running by the time the last of the ghost fleet ships leave Suisun Bay in 2017. Donations to the Historic Ships Memorial at Pacific Square can be made at www.savetheiowa.com.
Read the Top 8
Sign up for the Top 8, a roundup of the day's top stories delivered directly to your inbox Monday through Friday.