U.S. halts scrapping of ships overseas One-year ban ordered in response to health, ecological concerns

A significant policy shift

September 24, 1998|By Gary Cohn | Gary Cohn,SUN STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Vice President Al Gore banned the federal government yesterday from scrapping vessels overseas, a move intended to ensure that hazardous American ships will not be dumped on the Third World.

The prohibition on exporting Navy and Maritime Administration ships for disposal is effective immediately and will remain in force through Oct. 1, 1999.

"This step reflects the serious concerns that have been raised about potential threats to the environment, worker safety and public health posed by overseas scrapping operations," the vice president said. "I am confident that our nation's ports can provide the facilities and labor needed for scrapping during this moratorium, while observing appropriate safeguards to protect our waters, our workers and port communities."

Acting for the White House, Gore issued the executive memorandum yesterday to Secretary of Defense William S. Cohen and Secretary of Transportation Rodney Slater. The directive has the force of law as a statement of Clinton administration policy and must be followed by federal agencies.

Most overseas scrapping is done in South Asia, where worker-safety and environmental regulations are virtually nonexistent. In Alang, India, the world's largest shipbreaking center, 35,000 men work and live in wretched conditions.

Yesterday's action represents a significant policy shift for the Clinton administration. In April, a Defense Department panel, while recommending reforms of the scrapping program, did not rule out the scrapping of U.S. government ships abroad.

The Clinton administration had opposed legislation to ban overseas scrapping. The Senate passed the bill in July, but its chief sponsor, Maryland Democrat Barbara A. Mikulski, now says she will withdraw the legislation.

In his order, Gore prohibited the Maritime Administration, which owns a fleet of cargo vessels, from exporting its old ships to be scrapped overseas. But some Maritime Administration vessels are deteriorating rapidly and must be scrapped soon. Gore's directive allows the agency to seek an exception if it can show that the work can't be done in the United States or that an overseas scrapping operation has adequate safeguards.

There is no provision for exceptions in the case of Navy ships.

Gore's order leaves open the issue of whether overseas scrapping will be permitted after the yearlong prohibition. He said the moratorium "allows time for continued efforts to encourage similar safeguards overseas before any resumption of vessel exports."

Noel Gerson, a spokeswoman for the Defense Department's environmental security program, said yesterday: "We fully support the interim moratorium the vice president has called for." John Swank, a Maritime Administration spokesman, said the agency also supported Gore's action.

Mikulski, the leading congressional opponent of overseas scrapping, called Gore on Aug. 5 to express concerns that the Navy and Maritime Administration wanted to export old ships to the Third World rather than find ways to scrap them safely in the United States.

"I went to the logic of the argument," said Mikulski of their conversation, "which is, we should not export our environmental problems overseas in a cavalier way. It is really dumping.

"I reviewed why our domestic program was important," she added. The senator from Baltimore argued that breaking up ships in the United States would provide jobs, use the skills of shipyard workers, and help ensure that safety and environmental rules are followed.

With the export ban in place, the Navy and Maritime Administration, which together have about 180 ships awaiting scrapping, have no choice for now but to scrap them in the United States.

A series of articles in The Sun last December documented how some private contractors at ports across the United States cut corners while scrapping Navy ships, leading to deaths, accidents, mishandling of asbestos and environmental problems.

To reform the troubled program, a Defense Department panel recommended that government agencies step up inspections and provide clearer guidance about the safe disposal of vessels in the United States.

Critics, including Mikulski, believed the reforms did not go far enough. She co-sponsored legislation to set up a pilot program to test new ways of dismantling Navy vessels in the United States. The legislation was passed by the Senate but has not been approved by the House.

Pub Date: 9/24/98

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