Shipbreaking gains attention The Navy's little-known program to scrap old warships is being scrutinized by Congress members and others

December 28, 1997|By Will Englund and Gary Cohn

Nothing in Henry Nardone's long career in shipbuilding had prepared him for the sheer chaos he found when he took over a foundering company last year that ran a shipbreaking operation in Rhode Island.

Two guided missile cruisers sat tied up to an old pier near Quonset Point. Crews had been chopping here and hacking there, ripping out insulation and burning their way through bulkheads. Junk was strewn everywhere.

"You couldn't help thinking, this was a warship of the U.S. Navy," said Nardone. "It's almost a desecration."

Nardone had become a shocked witness to an industry that few Americans -- inside or outside the Navy -- had ever stumbled onto. Shipbreaking is a dirty, marginal job. Relying on cheap, immigrant labor, the industry has left a dismal record of deaths, accidents, fires, mishandling of asbestos and environmental violations at ports across the country.

Nobody paid the shipbreakers much attention -- not stateregulators or inspectors from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration or the Environmental Protection Agency, and certainly not the Navy. The Navy wanted to get rid of its old ships and be done with them.

But after a series of articles in The Sun this month examined the failings of the shipbreaking industry, the Navy's scrapping program is coming under scrutiny on several fronts:

Members of the Maryland congressional delegation have been insisting that the Navy justify its program. Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, a Democrat, has called for reform of the Navy shipscrapping program. Rep. Wayne T. Gilchrest, a Republican, has promised that his subcommittee will hold hearings beginning in February. Baltimore is home to what is probably the biggest fiasco in the program -- the scrapping of the USS Coral Sea -- and the only one that has so far resulted in a criminal conviction.

Other members of Congress and national environmental groups have attacked a Navy plan to send its warships, laden with hazardous materials, overseas for scrapping. A government that can't solve its problems at home, they argue, shouldn't dump them on the Third World.

"I find it unconscionable that the United States would bend its own environmental laws, exporting a serious environmental and worker safety problem along with these vessels, merely for the sake of expediency," said Rep. George Miller, a California Democrat.

John H. Dalton, the secretary of the Navy, ordered the Navy to suspend consideration of sending ships overseas for disposal. He also directed subordinates to work with the Defense Department agency that handles the sale of ships for scrap to evaluate the Navy scrapping program in the United States before considering sending ships abroad.

The idea of exporting ships to be torn apart by ill-paid and totally unprotected workers in India, Pakistan or Bangladesh has attracted the most comment up to now. In India, the world's shipbreaking center, conditions at the scrap yards are extremely dangerous; regulation is virtually nonexistent. Death by accident and disease is an everyday occurrence.

The director of one environmental organization decried the export plan as "toxic colonialism." Another environmentalist called it in an "immoral" and "unethical" idea.

But the real question now is, what lies ahead? The next round of ship sales for scrapping -- two dozen ships -- is scheduled to take place in early 1998.

The Navy and Defense Department cannot simply return to the old program, because it wasn't working, and now too many people are watching.

While Pentagon and Navy officials say they have tightened bidding procedures to weed out disreputable contractors and improved monitoring of scrap yards, others are skeptical that that is enough.

Miller wrote Dalton last week applauding his decision not to pursue overseas scrapping. But the Californian went on to say that the Navy had to be prepared to pay for the disposal of its old ships, instead of continuing to sell them off to make money.

"Shipbreaking should be viewed as an aspect of military nTC downsizing much like base closures, where environmental mitigation is an inevitable and often costly facet of the process," he said. "The Navy should include such mitigation in its budget to ensure that ships are dismantled as safely as possible both for the men and women engaged in the shipbreaking and for the environment."

David Sutkus, a former special agent with the Naval Criminal Investigative Service who investigated the scrapping of the Coral Sea, said the Navy has to rethink its scrapping program.

"I think the Navy has to make a decision on whether they are going to remove hazardous materials prior to sale of the ship; have a separate contractor remove the hazardous material and after that is done sell it off; or just have better oversight," Sutkus said.

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