Legislation would ban exporting of old ships Senate approves bill

House must act next

July 18, 1998|By Gary Cohn | Gary Cohn,SUN STAFF

In a move aimed at protecting foreign workers and the environment, the Senate passed legislation yesterday that would ban the federal government from exporting old Navy and Maritime Administration ships to Third World nations.

The prohibition, which was approved over the objections of the Clinton administration, is included in an appropriations bill that provides funding to the Environmental Protection Agency and more than a dozen other federal agencies.

Lawmakers said the Senate vote was an important step in ensuring that obsolete government ships are not sold to South Asia, where worker-safety and environmental regulations are virtually nonexistent. The House of Representatives must vote on its version of the funding bill, which does not include the export prohibition. A House-Senate conference committee must resolve differences between the two bills.

"The practice of exploiting foreign workers and ignoring the environment is beneath the dignity of our great Navy and of our nation," Maryland Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski said yesterday.

And Sen. John Glenn, an Ohio Democrat who co-sponsored the overseas ban, said the U.S. government should not export its old ships -- laden with hazardous materials -- to countries with weak safety and environmental standards.

"While I can respect the sovereignty of these countries in making their own environmental and labor laws -- however inadequate they may be -- I don't think that [the U.S. government] should be contributing to that inadequacy by sending its own ships there to be scrapped in that fashion," Glenn said.

Pressure from Congress

The Senate vote came as the shipbreaking industry is under increasing pressure from Congress to comply with anti-pollution and worker-safety laws.

Three weeks ago, the Senate passed legislation setting up a pilot project to test new ways of dismantling Navy vessels in the United States. The legislation would require the Navy to subsidize the disposal of ships included in the pilot program, instead of trying to make money from them. It would also place a greater emphasis on awarding contracts to companies with records of obeying worker-safety and environmental laws.

The Senate's actions follow a series of articles in The Sun in December that documented the industry's record of deaths, accidents, fires, mishandling of asbestos and environmental problems in the United States and in India, the world's leading shipbreaking nation.

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.

Major policy concerns

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.

In a report, the Senate 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 placing the U.S. domestic industry at a competitive disadvantage."

After the Appropriations Committee unanimously approved the overseas ban last month, the Clinton administration urged the full Senate to delete it from the bill.

"The administration supports the Committee's goal of ensuring a safe and environmentally sound ship-scrapping policy," said an administration policy statement. "The administration believes that a starting point to develop a more workable approach to achieve these protection aims would be to build on the recommendations of the Interagency Ship Scrapping Review Panel."

The Navy and Maritime Administration, which together have about 180 ships awaiting scrapping, had suspended the controversial export plan while the panel reviewed the way government ships are scrapped.

In its report in April, the panel reviewing the ship-scrapping program 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 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: 7/18/98

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