Panel mulls ships plan Defense committee to review Navy's scrapping program

Called 'a positive step'

Agencies to decide how best to dispose of surplus vessels

January 16, 1998|By Gary Cohn | Gary Cohn,SUN STAFF Sun staff writer Will Englund contributed to this article.

The Department of Defense is creating a high-level panel to review the Navy's troubled ship-scrapping program, which has harmed workers and polluted waters at ports around the country.

The panel, which will be headed by a senior Defense Department official and include representatives from at least six government agencies, is expected to examine a broad range of safety, environmental and public policy issues and make recommendations in 60 days on reforming the program.

"Ships are very complex systems and we want to ensure we scrap these vessels in an environmentally sound, safe, affordable and commercially feasible way," said Patricia A. Rivers, who is heading the panel. Rivers is responsible for developing environmental cleanup policy for the Defense Department worldwide.

The appointment of the panel comes amid increasing criticism of the Navy's scrapping program from members of Congress and environmentalists. It follows a series of articles last month in The Sun that documented how the scrapping industry has left a dismal record of deaths, accidents, fires, mishandling of asbestos and environmental violations wherever it goes.

The committee was set up by Jacques S. Gansler, the undersecretary of defense for acquisition and technology. It will include representatives from the Navy, Defense Logistics Agency, Maritime Administration, Environmental Protection Agency, Occupational Safety and Health Administration and State Department. The group is expected to conduct its first meeting next week.

Members of Congress reacted favorably yesterday to the creation of the review panel.

"This panel is a positive step in correcting the shipbreaking problems," said Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, a Maryland Democrat who has criticized the scrapping program. "The agencies need to communicate, cooperate and coordinate. They need to come up with concrete steps to make sure the problems of the past aren't repeated."

A spokeswoman for Rep. Wayne T. Gilchrest, said the Maryland Republican was pleased that the Defense Department has set up the panel. Gilchrest has said that a subcommittee he heads would conduct hearings on the ship-scrapping program early this year. The congressman plans to go ahead with the hearings, his spokeswoman said.

Since 1991, as the Navy downsized, the Defense Department sold its old warships to private contractors, who would try to make a profit by selling metal salvaged from the ships. But many contractors cut corners, leading to serious worker safety abuses and environmental violations at U.S. ports, including Baltimore.

Officials of the Navy and Defense Logistics Agency, which handles ship sales for the Navy, have acknowledged that the scrapping program has been flawed, but said they had tightened bidding procedures in 1996 to weed out unqualified contractors. They said they were convinced that a scrapper could buy a ship, follow environmental and safety laws in breaking it up, and still make a profit.

But critics contend that the Navy and Defense Department need to rethink their approach. They say the Navy should subsidize the disposal of its obsolete ships, instead of making money from them.

Rep. George Miller, a California Democrat, wrote to House members last week, arguing that the Defense Department has long accepted that it has to pay environmental cleanup costs related to closing bases. He argued that the downsizing of the fleet should be treated no differently.

One of the most significant issues to be addressed by the panel is whether U.S. warships should be scrapped in the Third World, where worker safety and environmental regulations are virtually nonexistent. Last month, Navy Secretary John H. Dalton suspended a controversial proposal to send warships overseas for disposal; the plan had come under increasing fire from members of Congress and environmentalists.

"What I think the panel can do is explore the question of whether ship scrapping abroad can be done in an environmentally sound, safe, affordable and commercially feasible way," said Rivers, the assistant deputy undersecretary of defense for cleanup.

"I know the Navy has vessels that have to be disposed of," said Rivers. "I believe our panel will establish a charter that will look at how these ships can best be disposed of both inside and outside the United States."

Pub Date: 1/16/98

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