They are the two ships no one wanted, almost constantly embroiled in one dispute or another for the past 25 years. The two Navy behemoths have never gone on a mission, were never even completed, yet they cost taxpayers at least $300 million.
Now the vessels, the Benjamin Isherwood and the Henry Eckford, are destined to leave Virginia waters for good and be scrapped at a Texas salvage yard, with no money coming back to the U.S. Treasury.
The Isherwood, stretching more than 660 feet, began its final journey this week, unceremoniously towed Tuesday from its mooring spot in the James River Reserve Fleet, also known as the "ghost fleet," near Fort Eus-tis in Newport News.
Its destination: International Shipbreaking Limited in Brownsville, Texas, just above the Mexico border. There, the vessel will be cut up, its innards removed and disposed of, and its steel and other metals sold as recycled products.
The Eckford, of equal size, is scheduled to follow next Tuesday, leaving behind fewer than 20 junk ships in the ghost fleet, the smallest number since its inception during World War I.
Once the two Navy oilers have departed, "it will close one of the saddest chapters in American shipbuilding and for that matter, federal fiduciary folly," wrote Joseph Keefe, a global maritime commentator, this week on the website MaritimeProfessional.com.
In seeing the two ships headed for a scrap heap, the U.S. Maritime Administration, which oversees ghost fleets in Virginia, Texas and California, also will close one of its most contentious disposal contracts - one that spurred environmental protests on both sides of the Atlantic, caused lawsuits over American toxic dumping, and drew condemnation by former British Prime Minister Tony Blair.
In 2003, the Maritime Administration announced a $17.8 million contract with Able UK, a shipyard in northeastern England, to dismantle 13 ghost ships from Virginia.
Able UK, which had never demolished a ship before and did not have permits to do so at the time, also was to receive the Isherwood and Eckford as perks to sweeten the deal.
Only four ghost ships arrived at the yard in Hartlepool, off the North Sea, the rest blocked by legal orders and political maneuvering. There they sat for nearly seven years before finally being recycled in late 2010, according to company and government officials.
Able UK won title rights to the Isherwood and Eckford after completing the work and took ownership in June, said Kim Riddle, a spokeswoman for the Maritime Administration, a branch of the U.S. Transportation Department.
The theory was that Able UK would finish construction of the two oilers - they were 95 percent and 84 percent complete at the time - and sell them for big dollars to a NATO ally or another friendly country.
But because the oilers were single-hulled ships, instead of the modern double-hulled standard, "we concluded that recycling was the best option," said Peter Stephenson, Able UK's executive chairman, in a statement released Thursday.
Neither Able UK nor International Shipbreaking would disclose the details of their scrapping contract, saying a confidentiality agreement had accompanied the deal. And since the contract did not involve the Maritime Administration, the agency declined to comment as well.
The government paid Able UK $10 million to scrap the four ghost ships from Virginia, said Riddle.
The Isherwood and Eckford were part of an 18-ship class known as the Henry J. Kaiser fleet of replenishment oilers, titans that carry oil for Navy vessels around the globe.
They were the only two that went unfinished, and were part of a 1985 budget request from the Navy for three oilers for a combined $567 million, according to records.
The two were built at the Pennsylvania Shipbuilding Co. in Philadelphia, which defaulted on its Navy contract in 1989. The ships were then sent to Florida to be finished. But disputes over costs and materials in Tampa led to the termination of that contract in 1993, according to records.
The Navy thought about turning the Isherwood and Eckford into ammunition ships, but that proved too expensive. In 1997, three years after the ships had been mothballed in the James River ghost fleet, the Navy cut its ownership ties.
Since then, the two star-crossed ships have sat idle in the middle of the James - until this week.
Scott Harper, (757) 446-2340, email@example.com