Agency scraps plan for old ships U.S. suspends overseas disposal of cargo vessels

January 29, 1998|By Gary Cohn | Gary Cohn,SUN STAFF

The federal Maritime Administration has suspended a plan to send its old ships overseas for disposal amid increasing criticism that scrapping the vessels abroad would exploit Third World workers and harm the environment.

The maritime agency said it was suspending the controversial export plan while a high-level Defense Department panel reviews how government ships are scrapped. The panel, scheduled to meet for the first time next week, is to recommend within 60 days how to ensure that workers and the environment are protected during scrapping.

The maritime agency's suspension of the export plan comes after the Navy took a similar step last month. The decisions and the appointment of the review panel came after a series of articles in The Sun last month documented how the Navy's ship-scrapping program has harmed workers and polluted waters at ports around the country.

The articles also described proposals by the Navy and Maritime Administration to sell obsolete vessels laden with hazardous materials to Third World scrapyards, where worker protection is minimal and pollution routine.

The Maritime Administration owns a fleet of cargo ships and other vessels that could be used in war and other national emergencies. But some are obsolete and have been designated for scrapping.

The Maritime Administration and the Navy have considered overseas scrapping because their ships fetch higher prices overseas than in the United States. Most of the world's ships are broken up on beachfront plots in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. The Sun series described wretched conditions at the world's largest ship-scrapping site, in Alang, India, where death by accident and disease is an everyday occurrence.

Members of Congress and environmental groups have denounced the export plan. In a letter to the Maritime Administra- tion this week, Rep. George Miller, a California Democrat, said he was aware of the problems in trying to dispose of old vessels.

However, he said, "I feel strongly that contributing to the pollution and labor exploitation found at places like Alang, India, is not a fitting end for these once proud ships."

Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, a Maryland Democrat, said yesterday that she was pleased by the Maritime Administration's decision.

"This is a good first step," she said. The Maritime Administration "needs to be part of the solution, not part of the problem. I hope they now take an active role in developing a plan for shipbreaking that is safe for workers and the environment -- both at home and abroad."

Together, the Navy and the Maritime Administration have about 170 ships designated for scrapping. Since the end of the Cold War, the Navy has been selling off ships to private scrapping contractors who have left a dismal record of worker safety and environmental abuses across the United States. In Baltimore and other ports, untrained workers -- mostly Mexicans -- were killed or maimed in avoidable accidents and routinely exposed to asbestos.

With its domestic program in disarray, the Navy looked overseas for a solution.

The Navy and Maritime Administration negotiated agreements last year with the Environmental Protection Agency to lift a ban on the export of vessels, enacted because of PCB-containing materials on board. PCBs, or polychlorinated biphenyls, were widely used for years in electrical insulators until they were linked to serious health problems.

The Maritime Administration announced the suspension of the export plan in a letter the EPA received yesterday. A Maritime Administration spokesman declined to comment.

Pub Date: 1/29/98

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