Senate panel backs ship-export ban Bill would forbid sending U.S. vessels abroad to be scrapped

June 12, 1998|By Gary Cohn | Gary Cohn,SUN STAFF

The federal government would be banned from exporting its old ships -- laden with hazardous materials -- to Third World nations under legislation approved yesterday by a key Senate committee.

The prohibition was quietly tucked into an appropriations bill that provides funding to the Environmental Protection Agency and more than a dozen other federal agencies. It was unanimously approved by the Senate Appropriations Committee.

Lawmakers and environmentalists said that the committee's action was a crucial step in ensuring that obsolete Navy and Maritime Administration vessels are not sold to South Asia, where worker-safety and environmental regulations are virtually nonexistent.

"I do not believe the United States should be exporting opportunities for misery," said Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, who inserted the overseas ban into the funding bill.

The legislation must be voted on by the full Senate. After the House of Representatives passes its version of the funding bill, a House-Senate conference committee must resolve differences between the two bills.

The committee's action came two months after a Defense Department panel, recommending reforms of the troubled ship-scrapping program, did not rule out the option of scrapping U.S. government ships overseas.

It was unclear yesterday whether the Defense Department would fight the ban. "We have just been made aware of this legislative action and we are analyzing it," said Army Lt. Col. Nancy Burt, a spokesman for the Defense Department.

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.

Yesterday's action came as the shipbreaking industry comes under increasing pressure from Congress to comply with anti-pollution and worker-safety laws.

The scrutiny follows a series of articles in The Sun in December that documented the industry's record of deaths, accidents, fires, mishandling of asbestos and environmental violations at ports around the country. Most overseas scrapping is done in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. In Alang, India, the world's largest shipbreaking center, 35,000 men work and live in wretched conditions.

If adopted, the overseas ban would remain in effect until Sept. 30, 1999. It would prohibit the overseas scrapping of U.S. government vessels -- unless the EPA administrator certifies that the nations where the yards are located enforce environmental laws comparable to those in the United States.

Overseas scrapping of U.S. vessels became possible last year after the Environmental Protection Agency signed agreements with the Navy and Maritime Administration lifting a ban on the export of ships, which was put in place because of PCB-containing materials on board. PCBs, or polychlorinated biphenyls, were widely used in electric insulators until the 1970s, when they were linked to serious health problems.

Elisabeth Mills, a spokeswoman for EPA, said the agency was still reviewing the legislation and had no immediate comment.

In a report, the Appropriations Committee said the agreements raised major policy concerns.

"They encouraged the export of hazardous materials that would have very likely been dumped off the shorelines of developing nations and into our oceans," the report said.

"The federal ship-owning agencies," the report continued, "now had less incentive to scrap domestically -- where they must comply with stricter and more costly standards for hazardous waste removal and abatement -- thus sending potential U.S. jobs and business overseas and placing the U.S. domestic industry at a competitive disadvantage."

The Defense Department review panel had acknowledged that sending U.S. ships overseas is viewed as exporting safety and environmental problems, but said that had to be balanced against the economic realities of developing nations.

"The panel felt it was important not to foreclose the overseas option while aggressively pursuing the domestic option," Patricia A. Rivers, who headed the panel, said at the time. The panel's report added: "The goal of U.S. policy should be to promote improvements in ship-scrapping practices in those countries, particularly with respect to protection of workers and the environment."

Pub Date: 6/12/98

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