Shipbreakers, revisited

April 13, 2003

FIVE YEARS AGO, the U.S. government belatedly realized that its program for disposing of old ships was a financial mess, an environmental disaster and a worker-safety nightmare. It instituted major reforms and began a pilot project - in Baltimore and three other ports - which proved that Navy vessels could be scrapped prudently and responsibly.

Now that project has run nearly to its conclusion, and the government's response has been shockingly wrong-headed.

Most of the government's mothballed ships are owned by either the Navy or the Maritime Administration. Each agency, in its own fashion, is quietly undermining the reforms of 1998.

The Navy clearly wishes that the problems posed by old ships would just go away, and is trying to ignore the whole issue.

The Maritime Administration, which had been pursuing the same tack and discovering that it doesn't work, has now come up with an even worse idea: It wants to resurrect a discredited government policy and begin palming off its old freighters and tankers on Asian shipbreaking yards that pay scant heed to the safety of their workers or the protection of the environment.

The dumping of toxic wastes - and that's what these ships amount to - on Third World nations is disgraceful.

The issue is responsibility. Well into the 1970s, ships were built with free use of PCBs and asbestos, both of which are health hazards. In a lifetime of service, ships become saturated with filthy oils, lubricants and other toxic chemicals. After years or even decades of being mothballed, their companionways, ladders and decks become so weakened by rust that they can pose a serious danger to anyone venturing on them.

Shipbreaking, as a result, is fraught with potential hazards. But doing nothing doesn't remove the problem, either. And there's this: The hulls of mothballed ships become so fragile that oil spills are eventually inevitable.

The owner of a ship has a clear obligation to ensure its safe disposal - even if that owner is the federal government.

Today the Navy has 94 inactive ships; 65 of them have been slated for disposal.

It's astonishing to recall that, until 1998, such ships were considered assets. The Navy actually sold them to shipbreakers, who then tried to make a profit from the scrap metal. The only way they could hope to do that, though, was to ignore every environmental and occupational-safety regulation on the books and hire crews of easily exploitable illegal aliens. Even then, the projects often ran into the red.

In the pilot program that was developed in 1998, the Navy has instead paid reputable yards to do the job correctly. It's difficult and dirty work; it costs $400 to $500 a ton to cut up a warship the right way.

The good news is that the Navy now recognizes it must pay for ship disposal. The bad news is that the pilot program is winding up and the Navy has barely seen fit to put any more money into it.

This year, for instance, $5 million has been budgeted for ship scrapping. It costs $4 million to dismantle a single 10,000-ton Spruance-class destroyer - or almost the whole budget. At that rate, even if the Navy never decommissioned another ship, it would take half a century to dispose of the inactive fleet.

But no yard could stay in business doing just one ship a year. The Navy seems content at the moment to moor more and more ships in American harbors and hope that future generations can take care of them - but that's not a solution.

The Maritime Administration, for one thing, has already tried it and failed. MARAD, as the agency is called, has 133 mothballed ships, 71 of them on the James River in Virginia. This may be the world's largest collection of rust buckets. On the doorstep of the Chesapeake Bay, they contain an estimated 13 million gallons of oil and fuel and are in ever-growing danger of spills and ruptures.

When the government stopped selling ships abroad, MARAD went into a sulk and practically refused to consider alternatives. Alarmed, Congress finally forced $31 million on the agency and told it to start clearing up the ships. Five are now heading to domestic scrapyards, at a cost of about $2.5 million a ship, and this is a big step forward.

But at the same time, MARAD has been told to investigate sales to overseas yards. This is a practice that was properly tossed on the scrapheap in the 1990s. Although shipbreaking conditions are improving in India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and China, where most of the yards are found, they are still woeful. It is a given that asbestos, PCBs and other First World poisons will find their way into the environment and into the bodies of the workers at these Asian scrapyards.

If MARAD was willing to clean the hazardous chemicals off its ships before exporting them for scrap, no one could object. But it won't do that. Instead it will be asking the Environmental Protection Agency later this year for what amounts to a waiver of the Toxic Substances Control Act.

MARAD says it will contractually obligate the overseas yards to follow safe practices. That, too, has been tried before - when the USS Bennington was sold to an Indian yard in 1996 - and it's a joke. It doesn't work. The EPA should say no.

Taken together, the Navy and the Maritime Administration are sapping the reforms that were so welcome and necessary five years ago. The Navy is putting its head in the sand and MARAD is trying to backslide, to save money and to save the bother. This is shortsighted and irresponsible - and an insult to public health and the environment.

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