No consensus on safer ship-breaking

Industry, government, environmental groups gather to seek solutions

Cost is a major consideration

September 22, 2001|By Frank D. Roylance | Frank D. Roylance,SUN STAFF

PHILADELPHIA - Concerns about the horrific human and environmental costs of scrapping the world's ships on Asian beaches have prompted shipowners, governments and environmental groups to seek ways to safely dispose of thousands of decrepit ships.

At a conference here last week, participants agreed that the dangerous working conditions and improper disposal of hazardous materials that typify the industry must be reformed. But there was no consensus about solutions. Among the proposals:

The U.S. Navy and Maritime Administration made a case for their decision to pay shipyards to scrap surplus military vessels under strict labor and environmental rules.

Commercial shippers suggested a voluntary code that urges owners to remove some hazardous materials from the old ships before they're sold to Asian scrap yards.

Environmental groups said rich nations should make their toxic ships thoroughly safe before they're sent to poor countries for recycling.

Others argued that some old ships should be cleaned up and buried at sea, to become attractions for fish and fishermen.

More than 160 people from around the world attended the meeting, which was funded by the U.S. Department of Defense and organized by the National Environmental Education and Training Center.

Public awareness of the ship-breaking problem was heightened in December 1997 by a Pulitzer-Prize-winning series in The Sun detailing the hazardous and environmentally unsafe conditions in U.S. and Asian yards.

The series triggered federal action. The Navy and the U.S. Maritime Administration (MARAD) halted plans to dispose of aged warships and military transports overseas.

And last year, the government stopped selling old ships for their scrap value.

Instead, it began to pay domestic shipyards, in Baltimore and three other U.S. cities, up to $3 million per ship to cut them up under strict worker safety and environmental rules.

"They [the scrap yards] have proven that they can properly scrap those ships in compliance with all federal, state and local environmental laws, and they all established good worker safety records," said Glen Clark, assistant manager of the Navy's Inactive Ship Program.

The problem is that Congress has provided too little money and left too many leaky ships at risk of sinking at anchor.

MARAD alone needs to scrap 154 noncombat ships by 2006, said the agency's associate secretary, James Caponiti.

"That's a huge challenge, perhaps an unrealistic expectation. We are seeking any solution that will help us get there," Caponiti said. MARAD's first-year appropriation of $10 million will pay to scrap just five ships.

At the old Philadelphia Navy Yard, John Strem, vice president of the Metro Machine Corp., stood beside an old 500-foot cruiser his crew was recycling and said all he needs is more ships.

"We could work a half-dozen ships at one time," he said. "We could easily put a few hundred more people to work."

Niko Wijnolst, of the Dutch Maritime Network, said there's not enough money to pay shipyards to scrap all the world's old ships.

There are 90,000 ships in the commercial fleet. Each year about 2,500 of them are retired and sold for scrap. The number is likely to reach 4,000 a year by 2010.

"You can't do them all in the U.S. I think that is a dead-end street," Wijnolst said. And Europe has no scrapping yards.

Wijnolst said the answer lies in cleaning up the current system. In July, shipowners approved a voluntary "Code of Practice." It calls for "greener" ship designs that avoid hazardous materials and make vessels easier to recycle.

It also urges owners to remove most hazardous materials from condemned ships, label the rest, and press Asian nations to reform their labor and environmental rules.

"They can be improved, and should be improved," Wijnolst said. "But we have to go there, bring our technology, bring our ideas and help them get their act together."

Several attendees warned that such Western demands are "imperialistic." They would be resented, and might never be enforced.

James Puckett of the Basel Action Network said shipboard toxics are the shipowners' responsibility. "The poor should not be disproportionately burdened with our toxic problems," he said.

Marietta Harjono of Greenpeace said ship-breaking has followed the economic "pathway of least resistance," from the developed nations to poor ones desperate for jobs and raw materials.

"Asia cannot remain the dumping ground" for the West's toxic ships, she said.

Harjono said shipowners should clear their vessels of all toxic substances, perhaps at their own state-of-the-art decontamination facilities. "Let Asians do what they do best - metal recycling and equipment recycling," she said.

Industry representatives said their ships aren't safe to sail stripped of all potentially hazardous materials.

Then they should stay put, Puckett said. He said old ships bound for the scrap yards are essentially hazardous waste, whose import and export are barred under terms of an international convention. Under the convention, he said, "We do not see hazardous wastes shifting north to south, rich to poor, with the exception of ship-breaking."

Several organizations championed another solution. They said governments must adopt clear standards and protocols to allow more ships to be cleaned up and sunk offshore.

The hulks are supposed to create artificial reefs that enhance the fishing and diving industries.

But this solution, too, is controversial. "In Europe," said Puckett, "this is called trashing the seas; it is a means of quick and dirty disposal."

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