Mikulski would keep shipbreaking in U.S. Program would test scrapping vessels in American yards

May 13, 1998|By Gary Cohn | Gary Cohn,SUN STAFF Sun staff writer Sean Somerville contributed to this article.

Disappointed with the Defense Department's plans to improve its troubled ship-scrapping program, Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski introduced legislation yesterday to set up a pilot program to dismantle Navy vessels at U.S. shipyards.

The legislation also would ban the sale of Navy and Maritime Administration ships for scrapping in the Third World, where worker-safety and environmental regulations are virtually nonexistent.

"The way we do this [dispose of old government vessels] is not being done in an honorable, environmentally sensitive, efficient way," Mikulski told the Senate.

"I believe when we have ships that have defended the United States of America, that they were floating military bases, they should be retired with honor."

The scrapping industry has compiled a record of deaths, accidents, mishandling of asbestos and environmental violations while dismantling Navy ships at ports around the country.

Last month, a Defense Department panel called for more rigorous management of the ship-scrapping program, including stepped-up inspections and clearer guidelines to shipbreaking firms.

But Mikulski said those suggestions did not go far enough.

"The recommendations were more enforcement of the same old way of doing business," she said.

"Well, more enforcement of the same old way of doing business will still end up with the same old way of doing business: occupational safety dangers, environmental catastrophes and a national disgrace."

A spokeswoman for the Defense Department said yesterday that government agencies are reviewing the panel's recommendations.

She added that the Navy is drafting plans for a pilot program to determine more clearly the costs of scrapping warships.

The Defense Department's "goal is to ensure that vessels are scrapped in a manner that is environmentally sound, safe and economically feasible," said Army Lt. Col. Nancy Burt.

Meanwhile, Rep. Wayne T. Gilchrest, the Maryland Republican whose House maritime subcommittee held a hearing on the scrapping program in March, plans to hold another hearing early next month to determine whether the Defense Department reform recommendations are adequate.

Since 1991, as the Navy has downsized, the Defense Department has sold old warships to private contractors, who have tried to make a profit by selling salvaged metal.

But many contractors cut corners, leading to safety and environmental violations at U.S. ports, including Baltimore, The Sun reported in a series of articles in December.

Mikulski criticized the Defense Department for awarding vessels to shipbreakers with questionable records while yards with established track records were desperate for business.

She cited the scrapping of the USS Coral Sea in Baltimore, which has been marked by a disabling accident, repeated fires, mishandling of asbestos and polluting of the harbor.

"Right down the road was the Baltimore shipyard, the Bethlehem Steel shipyard that was foraging for work," she said on the Senate floor.

But instead, "They turned to the rogues, the crooks, the scum, the scam, to dismantle Navy ships."

Under her demonstration project, some old government vessels would be scrapped at two shipyards that have a record of safely handling asbestos and other hazardous materials.

The Defense Department would pay up-front costs -- and then recoup those costs and share in any profits when the scrap is sold.

The contracts would run for three years.

The bill does not specify which shipyards would be eligible for the work, though it clearly seems to point to established yards such as the Baltimore area's Sparrows Point. Other possibilities include yards in Oregon and Massachusetts.

Baltimore Marine Industries Inc., the Sparrows Point shipyard formerly owned by Bethlehem Steel Corp., is eager to get ship-breaking work, workers and the yard's management have said -- but only if the work is made safe for the yard's roughly 700 workers.

The legislation also deals with the thorny issue of whether Navy and Maritime Administration ships should be scrapped overseas.

The Navy and the Maritime Administration, which together have about 180 ships designated for scrapping, had suspended the controversial export plan while the Defense Department panel reviewed the way government ships are scrapped. In its report last month, the panel did not rule out scrapping ships overseas.

Mikulski's bill would ban the overseas scrapping of Navy and Maritime Administration vessels unless the administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency and the secretary of labor certify that the nations where the yards are located enforce labor and environmental standards comparable to those in the United States.

The bill's co-sponsors, Democrats John Glenn of Ohio and Paul S. Sarbanes of Maryland, said the U.S. government should not export its environmental problems to Third World nations.

"If we are going to export ships to be scrapped, then the destination country must have adequate environmental and labor safeguards," said Glenn. "That's currently not the case in many developing countries."

Most shipbreaking overseas is done on beachfront plots in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. In Alang, India, the largest shipbreaking center in the world, 35,000 men work and live in wretched conditions.

Death by accident and disease is an everyday occurrence.

Pub Date: 5/13/98

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