Mikulski criticizes Navy shipbreaking She would halt plan to send ships overseas

December 12, 1997|By Gary Cohn and Will Englund | Gary Cohn and Will Englund,SUN STAFF

Citing threats to workers' safety and the environment, Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski called yesterday for a review of the Navy's troubled ship-scrapping program and requested that the Defense Department suspend a plan to send warships overseas for disposal.

Mikulski's request to the Defense Department came after a series of articles this week in The Sun documented how the scrapping program has harmed workers and polluted waters at ports around the country, including Baltimore.

Mikulski also called for the Senate Armed Services Committee to hold hearings on the program.

"I am appalled by the conditions described in the articles and the threats they present to worker health and safety, the environment and the communities surrounding shipyards," the Maryland Democrat said in a letter to Republican Sen. Strom Thurmond of South Carolina, chairman of the Armed Services Committee.

Rear Adm. Kendell Pease, chief of the Navy's information office, said that the Navy welcomes discussions "to ensure the complex process of ship disposal is conducted in an environmentally sound manner and in a way that protects the health and safety of workers."

A spokeswoman at the Defense Reutilization and Marketing Service, the Pentagon agency that administers the scrapping program, did not return phone calls yesterday.

In its three-part series, The Sun described deaths, accidents, fires, oil spills and mishandling of asbestos in the scrapping industry in the United States and in India, the world's leading shipbreaking nation.

American yards, dependent on low-paid Mexican immigrant laborers, have sprung up in struggling ports from Baltimore to Brownsville, Texas, since the Navy began selling off ships at the end of the Cold War.

The articles reported that the Navy and the Defense Department make no serious effort to oversee the scrapping, even though the Navy retains ownership of the vessels. Until recently, only one inspector with little training and experience kept watch on scrapping operations for the entire country.

One of the main findings in the series was that laborers have been working in air thick with asbestos dust. In Baltimore, for example, workers scrapping the USS Coral Sea ripped asbestos insulation from the aircraft carrier with their bare hands. At times they had no respirators, standard equipment for asbestos work.

"We know asbestos is a killer," Mikulski said in an interview. "It's not like this is an unknown particle. The mishandling of asbestos seems to be a pattern through all of this."

Mikulski also raised concerns about the Navy's plan to begin exporting ships to South Asia for dismantling, where working conditions are extremely dangerous and environmental regulations virtually nonexistent. The Sun articles described the

disabling accidents, disease and deaths that characterize the shipbreaking plots along six miles of foul beachfront at Alang, India.

With its domestic program in disarray, the Navy has recently obtained an exemption from the Environmental Protection Agency that would allow the sale of its ships abroad. Such sales would normally be prohibited by the Toxic Substances Control Act because of PCB-containing materials that are on board every ship.

PCBs, or polychlorinated biphenyls, were used extensively for 50 years in electrical insulation, in air system gaskets and (x fluorescent light fixtures. They have been linked to cancer, liver and skin disease, and developmental problems in infants.

The exemption requires that the most accessible PCB materials be removed before export, but thousands of other contaminated items would remain on board. It would permit Navy ships to join the hundreds of other vessels from around the world that are scrapped every year on forlorn beaches in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh.

Mikulski said the Defense Department must ensure that its ships are scrapped in a responsible manner.

"Let's see if we can't either shut it down or clean it up," Mikulski said of the scrapping program.

Pub Date: 12/12/97

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