USS Sanctuary leaves harbor to be recycled

The former Navy hospital ship USS Sanctuary, which served in the aftermath of World War II and in Vietnam, has been sold and is now under tow from Baltimore to Brownsville, Texas, for recycling.

The move marks the end of a 22-year residence in Baltimore Harbor that was troubled by deterioration, failed business ventures and lawsuits. The Sanctuary left the harbor Wednesday.

Two suits are still pending. But the 529-foot ship's former owner — Potomac Navigation, Inc. — is in settlement talks with the U.S. Maritime Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency.

For the Port of Baltimore, the newly emptied space at Berth 5 in the North Locust Point Terminal is a new business opportunity.

"It's very good progress for us. We haven't been able to market that berth because we didn't know when it would become available," said Richard Scher, spokesman for the Maryland Port Administration. "We look forward to new business and certainly new days ahead for that berth."

Lawrence J. Kahn, the attorney for Potomac Navigation, said the company is disappointed it was prevented from using the ship as it was originally intended — as an "accommodations platform" and storage facility for port expansion workers in the United Arab Emirates.

But on "the bright side," he added, "the vessel is no longer a burden on the Port of Baltimore, and is going to be properly and legally recycled such that the metals and other valuable parts of the vessel will be able to be reused, and the toxins will be properly disposed of by the buyer."

The Sanctuary has been tested and found to contain dangerous levels of polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, carcinogenic chemicals used extensively in ships of that era.

The buyer, ESCO Marine Inc., in Brownsville, has agreed to recycle the Sanctuary in accord with "all applicable environmental laws and regulations … under the resource Conservation and Recovery Act."

The work will be done under the oversight of the Texas Commission of Environmental Quality, the EPA, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the Maritime Administration.

"We believe this is a positive outcome for the environment, and the public, and in line with the health safeguards of the Toxic Substances Control Act," said Wyn Hornbuckle, a spokesman for the U.S. Department of Justice. He also confirmed that "settlement negotiations are ongoing" on the remaining lawsuits, but declined to comment further.

The USS Sanctuary was built in 1944 at the Sun Shipbuilding and Dry Dock Co. in Chester, Pa. It was commissioned on June 20, 1945, and sailed for Pearl Harbor. It arrived four days after the Japanese surrender in August. It then sailed to Wakayama, Japan, and helped to care for and repatriate 1,139 prisoners of war, mostly from Britain, Australia and Java.

Hundreds more patients and passengers — military and civilians — were taken on board and repatriated in late 1945 and 1946.

Decommissioned in 1946, the Sanctuary was idle for 20 years. Then, in 1966, it was refitted with updated medical gear and sent to the coast of South Vietnam in April 1967, according to the Naval Historical Center.

By the end of its first year at Da Nang, the Sanctuary's staff had admitted 5,354 patients and seen 9,187 outpatients.

Jim Beaty, of Memphis, Tenn., served on the Sanctuary in Vietnam. "Memories, mostly pleasant, but some horrifyingly unpleasant, will fill my mind and soul forever," he said via email after learning of the ship's fate. "Aboard Sanctuary, lives were saved, disease was fought, and those that served and those that were treated, should always be gratified."

J. Kevin Culley, served as a radioman 3rd Class from 1967 to 1969. He lives in Rhode Island now, and remembers Sanctuary as a place of "extraordinary people who did extraordinary things."

"Often that help pad was a confused site of deck crew, corpsmen, wounded and pilots. Lots of noise, lots of tension, but all knew their tasks and never flinched — even when chaos seemed to prevail."

Michael Newton was a 21-year-old Marine rifleman when he was wounded and flown to Sanctuary for multiple surgeries on shrapnel wounds.

"The care aboard U.S.S. Sanctuary was great; the doctors, nurses, and corpsmen, couldn't have been kinder and more skilled," he said in a message to The Sun. "I think about those highly charged days often, even after all these years."

Decommissioned again in 1975, the Sanctuary was idle until 1989, when a charitable group bought it from the Navy for $10 and brought it to Baltimore for use as a medical training facility.

When that venture failed, the ship was acquired by another group, called Project Life, for service as a drug treatment center. In 2001, the Port of Baltimore signed an agreement with Project Life allowing the ship to remain berthed at Locust Point. But the project failed, the lease expired in 2006, and the ship was abandoned.

The Port Administration has litigation pending to collect unpaid dockage fees from Project Life. They totaled $207,000 in May 2007, Scher said. And a court judgment provides for an additional $947 a day until the ship left the dock.

In 2007, the Sanctuary broke free of its moorings, and the Coast Guard labeled it "an unacceptable risk to the port of Baltimore." It was also taking up valuable commercial space on the harbor.

Port officials asked the Maritime Administration to take the ship back but were turned down. A federal judge later ordered it sold at public auction, where Potomac Navigation bought it for $50,000 in October 2007.

The latest ruckus over the ship began soon after, when an environmental group, Basel Action Network, raised concerns that Potomac Navigation would move the ship to a Third World nation for scrapping, in violation of U.S. laws barring the export of toxic chemicals.

The EPA obtained a court order in 2008 blocking Potomac Navigation from moving the ship from Baltimore.

Kahn said the company argued that it was not exporting the ship, since it had no plans to sell it overseas. It also argued that, when it bought the ship, the Maritime Administration had certified it was free of PCBs, except in a radar system the company did not plan to use.

Potomac Navigation tried to work with the EPA on an acceptable remediation plan but could not reach an agreement. It sued the government, seeking $7 million to pay for removing toxic chemicals from the ship and to recover other costs. It also found another ship for use in the United Arab Emirates.

It also sued the EPA and Maritime Administration under the Freedom of Information Act for failing to turn over documents it sought to demonstrate that the Sanctuary was being treated differently than another company that successfully exported a similar ship, the M/V Huddell.

Settlements in those suits are pending, Kahn said. Potomac Navigation expects to win cash to cover attorneys' fees and other costs.

The company sold the ship, for an undisclosed amount of cash, to ESCO Marine Inc., the Brownsville recycler. ESCO has certified to the government that the Sanctuary will be recycled in conformity with U.S. environmental laws and regulations.

So last month, a U.S. District Court judge lifted the court order that had held the ship in port.

At about 8:30 a.m. Wednesday, the ship was backed out of its dock on Locust Point and turned toward the Chesapeake; by 9:45 a.m. it was under way. The tow is being provided by the 121-foot tug Michael J. McAllister, owned by McAllister Towing of Virginia.

The trip is being made during hurricane season. The tug and the Sanctuary were near Cape Henry late Thursday, Kahn said. From there, they will move along the coast, around Florida and across the Gulf of Mexico to Brownsville.

The trip will probably take at least two weeks, Kahn said. "There are some storms brewing. Nobody wants to commit to any particular day for arrival."

McAllister is under instructions to "immediately seek safe refuge, when weather exceeds, or is predicted to exceed … sustained wind [of] 30 knots," or about 35 mph, according to papers filed with the court.

"The Coast Guard is aware of the transit of the vessel. Nobody is going to allow this vessel to do anything unsafe," Kahn said.

Maryland Port Administration spokesman Richard Scher's name was misspelled in an earlier version. The Sun regrets the error.

Maryland weather blog: Frank Roylance on meteorology

Sign up for FREE mobile weather alerts

Copyright © 2019, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad