One-time pride of U.S. fleet in limbo Asbestos thwarts renovation plans

November 02, 1993|By Will Englund | Will Englund,Moscow Bureau

MOSCOW -- The SS United States, once the pride of America's civilian fleet, was anchored off the Black Sea port of Sevastopol yesterday, hoping for reincarnation but treated like a pariah.

The vessel that once beat all records across the Atlantic needs total repair and is laden with asbestos, and no one seems to want the job.

The vessel, which has been out of service since 1969, has already been turned down by shipyards in Ilichevsk and Odessa, and yesterday officials in Sevastopol were trying to decide what to do with it. Greenpeace, the environmental group, has been hounding it wherever it goes.

A Ukrainian tug brought it there over the weekend from an anchorage in Turkey's Sea of Marmara, where it had lain for more than a year.

On the one hand, refurbishing the big ocean liner would bring millions of welcome dollars to Ukraine's collapsing economy, but on the other hand there are no sophisticated facilities there for working with asbestos.

Stripping the ship, which was built with fire-retardant asbestos on literally every deck and bulkhead, would expose thousands of workers to a highly carcinogenic material.

"Let them send the ship back to the United States, because that's where it was built," the director of Greenpeace-Ukraine, Alexei Kabyko, said last night.

The protests and outrage that the ship's arrival have sparked are in marked contrast to Ukraine's casual attitude toward its own asbestos. A recent visitor to a factory in Kiev, the capital, found huge amounts of loose asbestos choking the air and blowing through wide-open doors into the surrounding neighborhood.

But there seems to be something particularly galling about being offered work on a U.S. ship that no one else wants to do.

The SS United States was built in 1952 as a potent symbol of U.S. prowess. It was austerely elegant, and it was built with a top speed of 38 knots -- at the insistence of a military that thought it might one day come in handy.

On its maiden voyage in 1952 it easily broke the old record for crossing the Atlantic, taking 3 days, 10 hours and 40 minutes. But its constricted hull and voracious engines made it an unprofitable performer in the age of casual cruising. From 1969 to 1992 it was laid up in Newport News, Va..

Fleet in disrepair

For its part, Sevastopol is home to the once-proud Black Sea Fleet of the Soviet Navy, once a potent symbol in its own right. But it, too, has fallen on hard times. Today the fleet is divided between Russia and Ukraine, poorly maintained, and largely confined to port.

The navy shipyard is reportedly the biggest on the Black Sea, roomy enough for the 1,000-foot-long United States.

Its owners, a company registered in Delaware called Marmara Marine Inc., want to return the SS United States to its former glory. They hope to use it as a cruise ship "parallel to the QE2," as one of its owners puts it.

But is the $10 million they have offered for the refurbishment worth the environmental cost? Not only would workers be exposed to large amounts of asbestos, but Mr. Kabyko said he has been told the asbestos taken from the ship is to be buried in the Mackenzie Hills outside the city.

He said similar work in the West would cost at least $125 million, largely because environmental standards are much higher there (as are wages). The ship's owners say that figure is too high, but in fact two years ago it was estimated that a complete refurbishment, including both asbestos removal and rebuilding, would cost at least $200 million.

Fred Mayer, the chief executive officer of Marmara Marine, reacted angrily yesterday to the controversy.

"I am upset by the fact that there are thousands of ships that have asbestos and nobody makes an issue," he said in a telephone interview from his office in New York. "That's a political issue, and I think it's most unfair they don't give a chance for people to do the right job.

"The ship is still registered under the U.S. flag, and we are trying to save it. Our patience is growing very thin, however. We're trying to save it, and [Greenpeace] is trying to kill it."

Yesterday the military authorities barred the ship from Sevastopol harbor until a decision can be made by local civilian officials. The city government yesterday appointed a commission to decide whether to admit the ship.

It is not clear whether the ship is now in international waters, but in any case the Itar-Tass news agency reported that an inspection team has been unable to board it so far.

'The last option'

"This is probably the last option for that ship," Mr. Kabyko said. If the yard in Sevastopol won't take it, it is unlikely any other will.

The United States was bought at auction for $2.6 million on April 27, 1992, by Marmara Marine, a group of U.S. and Turkish investors.

On June 4, 1992, the United States was tugged to an anchorage in the Sea of Marmara, by Istanbul.

"The ship was towed to Turkey to get it ready to be refurbished," Stewart Dye, a Washington lawyer who represented Marmara Marine, said yesterday.

"We had planned to do the work in Turkey," said Mr. Mayer, "but there were a number of controversies there."

The company turned to Sevastopol, Mr. Dye said, "because they have a special facility for that type of work."

Mr. Kabyko denied that there are any such facilities there. Greenpeace, he said, has learned that the Turkish government refused to allow the work to be done in Turkey because of the environmental hazard.

He said the United States, once the flagship of the U.S. merchant fleet, the holder of the Blue Riband for trans-Atlantic speed, is today nothing but a "floating coffin."

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