A "Ghost Fleet" Haunts the James River

The "Ghost Fleet" back in 2002. (Gary C. Knapp/Getty Images)

Ghost ships are always popping up in folklore and fiction -- there's the Flying Dutchman of Wagner's "Der Fliegende Holländer," the Black Pearl in "Pirates of the Caribbean," and hey, even the eponymous "Ghost Ship" in Disney's TaleSpin.

Of course in fiction, the primary problem with ghost ships is their crews of undead pirates, or at best, lonesome, cursed sailors who unknowingly forecast doom. In real life, ghost ships portend oil spills, asbestos leaks and other toxic disasters.

According to PilotOnline (via Environmental Health News), such "ghost fleets" of unneeded naval vessels dot the country's waterways, waiting for modification or scrapping that might not come for years. Several Virginia counties recently appealed to Congress to fast track the removal of the James River Reserve Fleet, a string of 31 decommissioned and, in some cases, decaying boats lashed together indefinitely.

The majority of the James River ships have been classified as "non-retention," meaning they'll never be repurposed as active vessels. Instead, they're destined for scrap yards, museums or fishing reefs. The trouble is, scrap yards aren't buying, leaving the boats to corrode. The once fast trade in recycled steel between the U.S. government and scrap yards has plummeted as fewer scrap yards can afford to bid on the ships due to the economy.

So despite the fleet's combined 1.2 million gallons of waste oil within precarious distance of Jamestown, oyster beds and 50 miles of the James River, the ships are left to wait until the government helps fund their disposal or a stronger economy picks up the steel market.

More on the nautical theme: How Pirates Works If I'm on a cruise ship, what laws do I have to adhere to? How the U.S. Coast Guard Works How to Survive a Sinking Ship