Navy halts plan to scrap ships abroad Secretary suspends controversial effort, orders re-evaluation

'Important, much-needed first step,' Mikulski says

December 23, 1997|By Gary Cohn and Will Englund | Gary Cohn and Will Englund,SUN STAFF

Navy Secretary John H. Dalton has suspended a controversial proposal to send warships overseas for disposal, a plan that had come under increasing fire from members of Congress and environmental organizations.

Capt. Craig Quigley, a spokesman for Dalton, said the secretary has ordered the Navy to immediately suspend consideration of sending ships overseas. Dalton also directed subordinates to work with the Defense Logistics Agency, which handles the sale of ships for scrap, to evaluate the Navy scrapping program in the United States before considering sending ships abroad.

Dalton's action came after a series of articles this month in The Sun documented how the Navy's troubled ship-scrapping program has harmed workers and polluted waters at ports around the country. The articles also described a Navy proposal to sell warships, laden with hazardous materials, to Third World scrapyards, where worker protection is minimal and pollution routine.

"Basically, he [Dalton] said let's just hold off on taking a look at overseas options until taking a look further at options in the United States," Quigley said. "He is concerned and wants to do this right, in accordance with all applicable laws, budgetary restraints and common sense."

Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski of Maryland said yesterday that she was relieved that the Navy had dropped the idea of exporting its vessels. But she cautioned that that alone was not enough.

"This action is a very important and much-needed first step," Mikulski said. "But it cannot be the only step. The Navy must develop a plan that saves communities at home, saves our workers' lives and saves the environment."

In its 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 pre-eminent shipbreaking nation.

Since the articles appeared, members of Congress and environmental groups have attacked the Navy's plan to sell its obsolete ships to yards in South Asia. Most overseas shipbreaking is done on beachfront plots in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh.

In Alang, India, the world's largest shipbreaking site, 35,000 men live and work in wretched conditions. Death by accident and disease is an everyday occurrence.

Critics on Capitol Hill have objected to exporting the ships, which they describe as an expedient but unacceptable solution to a U.S. environmental and worker safety problem. Rep. Wayne T. Gilchrest, a Maryland Republican, plans to hold hearings on the ship-scrapping program beginning in February. And leaders of environmental groups, including the Sierra Club, said the Navy would be abdicating its responsibility by scrapping ships containing hazardous materials overseas.

Proponents have pointed out that the U.S. government could receive more money for its ships if it sold them abroad; unregulated foreign yards have much lower costs.

The Navy negotiated an agreement last summer with the Environmental Protection Agency that would lift a ban on the export of warships, enacted because of PCB-containing materials on board. PCBs, or polychlorinated biphenyls, were widely used for 50 years in electrical insulation, air system gaskets and fluorescent light fixtures. They have been linked to cancer, liver and skin disease, and developmental problems in infants.

Under the agreement, the most accessible PCB-bearing materials would be removed, but others could remain on the ships. Although the service pushed hard for that agreement, Navy officials said last week that the proposal to export ships for scrapping was only under consideration.

Steven Herman, the EPA's assistant administrator for enforcement, has defended the agreement. He said it requires the removal of the most hazardous PCBs before export and notification to the countries where the ships would be sent.

The Navy began considering the overseas option after the domestic scrapping program became plagued with problems. The Defense Department has been selling ships for scrapping to private contractors at ports across the United States since 1991, when it began downsizing at the end of the Cold War. But the Defense Department has repeatedly sent ships to scrappers with records of bankruptcies, fraud, payoffs to government inspectors, and environmental and safety violations.

Industry experts have said the program is fundamentally flawed: A warship can't be scrapped properly and profitably because the safe removal of hazardous materials is expensive. Those willing to do the work often are inexperienced or willing to cut corners.

Defense Department and Navy officials defended the program last week, declaring that they had tightened bidding procedures to weed out disreputable contractors and had improved the monitoring of scrapyards.

Critics have said the Navy should overhaul the program, instead tinkering with its parts. They have suggested that the Navy pay contractors for scrapping, do the work itself in Navy yards or remove hazardous materials before turning vessels over to scrapyards.

Pub Date: 12/23/97

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