Mare Island Naval Shipyard (MINS) is located along the western edge of the city of Vallejo in northern California, approximately 30 miles northeast of San Francisco. Established by the U.S. Navy in 1853, it is the oldest base on the West Coast. The island is made up of 4,351 acres of which 2,500 were used for naval activity. The Navy utilized the property primarily as a shipyard (created in 1854), but also situated an ammunition depot, a hospital (later converted to training facilities) and a Marine barracks on the island.
The original purpose for Mare Island Naval Shipyard as stated by the U.S. Navy was to maintain, overhaul and refuel ships, including nuclear powered vessels, provide logistical support for ships and service craft and provide services and materials for other Navy functions.
Over MINS’ long years of service, 512 ships were constructed and hundreds more repaired. The first ship built at MINS was the Civil War paddle-wheeled gunboat “Saginaw”, launched in 1859.
During World War II, shipyard workers set a still unbroken record for the construction of the “U.S.S. Ward”, a destroyer, from keel laying to launching in only 17 ½ days. Subsequent to the “Ward”, workers constructed 17 submarines, 4 subtenders, 31 destroyer escorts, 33 small craft and more than 300 landing craft. The 1960’s saw the building of nuclear submarines, the first of which was the “U.S.S. Sargo” and the last, the “U.S.S. Drum”, launched during the Vietnam War.
In 1993, the Department of Defense recommended closure of MINS; operational closure was completed in April 1996.
The long history of military and shipyard activity on Mare Island generated an extremely large amount of hazardous waste that required remediation. Metal plating, repair of lead acid batteries, abrasive blasting, discharge of contaminated waste water, landfill creation and disposal of solvents, PCBs, contaminated fluids and asbestos were all performed at various locales on Mare Island. Other environmentally problematic enterprises from the island’s past included disposal of contraband and detonation of projectiles, warheads and explosives. Soil, groundwater and dredge ponds had all been impacted by improper disposal, with the western part of the island found to be highly contaminated with hazardous, toxic and radioactive waste. Over 85,000 cubic yards of soil contaminated with PCBs, pesticides, lead-based paint, asbestos and petroleum fuels were ultimately consolidated on site. Remediation put a total of 2,800 acres of the island back into use, with 8 acres of new wetland constructed to replace contaminated wet land. Additional remediation cleaned up metal contamination and solvents from the shipyard and lead-based paint and asbestos that were in the existing buildings on the island. Over 400 transformer sites, 75 underground storage tanks and underground fuel and utility lines required abatement, as well.
The detrimental effect of the hazardous waste on Mare Island was also felt by its workers. Because the shipyard industry used many products that contained asbestos, workers were routinely exposed to the substance, often on a long-term, close-range basis. Exposure to asbestos can cause any number of health issues, including the development of several illnesses (Such as asbestosis or pleural plaques) and even a number of deadly forms of asbestos cancer (Such as lung cancer or mesothelioma). Many lawsuits brought by retired naval shipyard workers are currently at bar or on appeal in the San Francisco Superior Court and in Alameda County, California.
Although no longer commissioned as a naval base, Mare Island has not lain idle. Hollywood came knocking for use of island buildings and locations, most notably the movies “Jack” with Robin Williams and Bill Cosby in 1995, “Sphere” and “Metro” with Eddie Murphy in 1996 and “Flubber” in 1997.
After remediation was completed, local and state officials hoped to find beneficial use of Mare Island. Currently, a master planned community is under development for industrial, retail and residential properties.