Salvage the Navy's ships at home Shipbreaking scandal: Close inspections should bring safety and dignity to the work.

December 09, 1997

THE WORST WAY the Navy could react to the scandal of unsafe work and pollution in the breaking up of its old ships would be to move the work offshore to even worse facilities with more vile records of contempt for human life. Yet as it chases shady operators run out of one state by the Environmental Protection Administration to another, that is what the Navy is tempted to do.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) -- to its eternal shame -- this summer exempted the Navy from rules banning the export of ships containing PCBs. The Navy is required to remove only liquid PCBs first, not other PCBs or asbestos or other toxic substances.

Today's investigation by Sun reporters Will Englund and Gary Cohn of the hell-hole in Alang, India, where some 35,000 barefoot workers risk their lives for $1.50 a day to break up more ships than are salvaged anywhere else on earth, shows what would happen.

Owners there pay more for ships than elsewhere, make more money scrapping them than others, and the wretched conditions explain why. Never mind the degradation to the Arabian Sea.

The Defense Department spent a lot of taxpayers money to have these floating bases for national security built right and owes it to the American people to see that, at the end of their useful lives, these proud ships are dismantled safely and responsibly. The work should be done in American yards under real supervision. Increasing the shipbreaking inspectors at the Defense Reutilization and Marketing Service of the Navy, from one to four, did not solve the problem.

The EPA and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) should be all over any yard doing this work. They cannot pretend things are all right until they hear otherwise. The conviction of Kerry L. Ellis in federal District Court here in May, for hazards to workers breaking up the USS Coral Sea in Fairfield and for dumping poison in the Patapsco, cried out for intense scrutiny of all yards.

The White House, Congress and Pentagon would not tolerate building warships so carelessly and hazardously. As they put an end to the useful life of 111 more aged veterans of the seas, they should insist on standards of safety no lower than in construction.

Ships that served their nation, like the men and women who served on them, deserve a decent and dignified end. No more Navy ships should be sent to Alang.

Why save millions on this when the same authorities don't care about saving billions on anything else?

Pub Date: 12/09/97

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