Senate votes to fix Navy scrapping Pilot program would test new methods of dismantling vessels

June 26, 1998|By Gary Cohn | Gary Cohn,SUN STAFF

In a crucial step in the effort to reform the government's troubled ship-scrapping program, the Senate passed legislation last night setting up a pilot project to test new ways of dismantling obsolete Navy vessels in the United States.

The pilot project was approved as an amendment to the Department of Defense authorization bill, but still faces hurdles before the program could go into effect.

The legislation would require the Navy to subsidize the disposal of its old ships instead of trying to make money from them. It also would place a greater emphasis on awarding contracts to companies with records of obeying worker-safety and environmental laws.

The Navy would recoup at least part of its costs when the scrap is sold.

"We're not in the business of making money for the Navy," said Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, who introduced the amendment. "We're in the business of retiring these ships with honor."

A Navy spokeswoman had no immediate comment on the legislation.

The pilot program was included in the defense authorization bill, which was expected to be approved last night. The House of Representatives passed a defense authorization bill last month,

but its version does not include the ship-scrapping program.

A House-Senate conference committee must resolve differences between the two bills before a final version would be submitted for the president's signature.

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.

Two weeks ago, the Senate Appropriations Committee unanimously approved legislation banning the federal government from exporting its old ships to Third World nations, where worker safety and environmental regulations are virtually nonexistent. That legislation must be voted on by the full Senate.

Taken together, the legislation banning overseas scrapping and the amendment setting up a pilot program reflect congressional disappointment with Defense Department plans to improve its shipbreaking program. In April, a Defense Department review panel called for more rigorous management of the scrapping program, including stepped-up inspections and clearer guidelines to shipbreaking firms. But critics said those suggestions did not go far enough.

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 pilot project also is intended to determine more clearly the costs of scrapping old vessels -- and to help resolve the debate over whether it is possible to scrap ships both safely and profitably.

The legislation does not specify the shipyards that would be eligible for the work or the number of vessels to be scrapped. Mikulski had previously introduced a bill that would have required the work to be done at U.S. shipyards. But after the Navy and members of the Senate Armed Services Committee raised concerns that this would limit competition, she changed the legislation to allow any qualified bidder to apply.

By Sept. 30, 2000, the secretary of the Navy would be required to submit a final report to Congress on the results of the pilot program and a strategy for future ship-scrapping initiatives.

Democratic Sens. Paul S. Sarbanes of Maryland and John Glenn of Ohio co-sponsored the amendment to establish the pilot program.

Pub Date: 6/26/98

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