A plan to retire ships with greater dignity Mikulski bill: Legislating an end to the scandal of unsafe and unsanitary shipbreaking.

May 17, 1998

THE BILL to reform shipbreaking practices of the U.S. Navy and Maritime Administration, introduced by Sen. Barbara Mikulski, is the right response to the pathetically inadequate recommendations made last month by a panel representing seven federal agencies.

Senator Mikulski's bill, co-sponsored by Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes, her Maryland colleague, and Sen. John Glenn, D-Ohio, would create a pilot program for shipbreaking in U.S. shipyards. It would forbid exporting the 180 ships scheduled for scrapping to foreign yards until those had been certified as conforming to U.S. standards of environmental and occupational safety.

That is the way to correct the shocking deaths and maiming and the brazen polluting that go on routinely in the fly-by-night shipbreaking industry in this country and abroad. These practices were exposed last year by Sun reporters Gary Cohn and Will Englund, for which they were awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Investigative Reporting. But the Pentagon-assembled panel called only for Band-Aids.

It urged more inspections and weeding out of the worst offenders, but retained the option of selling old ships to highest bidders abroad. That means those in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh who break the ships up on the beaches with untrained and starving workers, dumping asbestos, lead paint and PCBs into the coastal seas.

As Senator Mikulski says, "Our great Navy ships served valiantly -- and they should be retired with honor." The United States can afford to break up the ships as it dismantles a military base, with safety for the workers and sensitivity to the environment.

Is it simply too expensive to break up old ships in a responsible manner? The Mikulski bill would allow the Defense Department to find out just what the expense is. Then the debate on future shipbreaking could proceed with at least some grasp of the costs of the alteratives being considered.

The only costs known now are those of broken bodies and poisoned land and water from the most recent practices. Those costs are much too high.

Pub Date: 5/17/98

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