Plan for hospital ship questioned

Concerns raised over ownership, PCBs, possible illegal breakup

November 13, 2007|By Tricia Bishop | Tricia Bishop,SUN REPORTER

A former World War II hospital ship that has spent much of its retirement languishing in Baltimore will soon be towed to Greece, under a plan that's raising legal questions and pollution concerns from a Seattle environmental group.

In a statement set to be released today, the Basel Action Network said it has contacted the U.S. Coast Guard, the Maryland Port Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency with allegations that the Sanctuary contains polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, thought to cause cancer.

High on the list is a fear that the 522-foot-long, eight-story-high vessel will be towed abroad and dismantled in a developing nation, thereby violating federal regulations barring the export of such toxic waste materials.

But a representative for the ship's new owner says there are few, if any, PCBs, no plans to officially export the ship (it will remain the property of a U.S. company) and no plans to scrap it. Instead, it will temporarily be taken to Greece within the next three weeks, where architects will determine whether it can be turned into a hotel or storage facility.

"I don't know where they got their information," said Lawrence Kahn, the attorney representing Potomac Navigation Inc., the newly formed U.S. company that bought the long-dead vessel for $50,000 at a court-ordered auction in August.

Kahn provided The Sun with a 1989 document that said "there were no exposed PCBs nor any leakage detected" on the ship, though its radar system likely contained PCBs. The chemicals were often used on ships to make components fireproof until they were linked to various cancers.

But the environmental group BAN, and others in the shipbreaking industry, aren't so sure. They note that early PCB inspections did not take into account solid forms of the chemicals later found in abundance in the early 1990s.

"The Navy vessels that have been scrapped from that era contain PCBs in the coating. As far as I know, there has not been a single vessel from that era that did not have PCBs" in significant amounts, said Polly Parks of the North American Ship Dismantlement Association. "I'd say it's virtually certain that there are PCBs in the coatings of this vessel."

There are many unanswered questions surrounding the ship, which has been the subject of court cases and a failed attempt to turn it into a floating drug rehabilitation center. It was berthed yesterday afternoon at North Locust Point Marine Terminal.

One of the biggest mysteries is the new owner. He is listed in court papers as Nicholas Couchell, "an American citizen." But little else is known, and Kahn would add no more.

Also uncertain is whether Couchell could legally buy it. BAN and Parks said the U.S. Maritime Administration should have reclaimed the ship. Maritime Administration officials weren't available for comment yesterday, a federal holiday.

The Sanctuary had a noble history for many years - earning 11 battle stars for service in the Vietnam War - before it was put in the care of the Maritime Administration, which sold the vessel to a humanitarian group in 1989 for $10. A copy of the sales contract, obtained by The Sun, noted that the ship contains asbestos.

Soon, lawsuits were challenging the rehabilitation plan. The ship was passed on to a second-generation version of the humanitarian group and eventually abandoned. When it broke free of its moorings this year, the Maryland Port Administration had had enough and sought through the courts to sell it.

That move was sanctioned by Baltimore's U.S. District Court, and an auction was held in August, putting the ship in the hands of Potomac Navigation and Couchell.

The 1989 contract with MARAD, however, says "there shall be no further transfer of ownership of the vessel" and "the transferee shall reconvey the vessel to the government" if it is no longer needed or wanted.

MARAD has responsibility for defunct and possibly dangerous ships. A 2005 report by the Government Accountability Office noted that the administration was likely to miss - and has since - a 2006 deadline for placing such ships. It also outlined a history that involved selling the ships to overseas scrapping companies.

That practice was stopped in 1994 after the Environmental Protection Agency raised concerns about PCBs.

An e-mail provided to The Sun shows the agency is looking into the possibility of such chemicals on the Sanctuary, which Kahn confirmed.

The EPA would have to give an exemption to the Sanctuary for it to be sent abroad and broken up, which can net the owner millions if it were done in a developing nation where labor is cheap.

"One of the big loopholes with these ships and other things, is [people will] claim they're not really waste," said Robert Percival, a professor at the University of Maryland's School of Law.

Jim Puckett of the Basel Action Network said he fears that's the case here. Kahn, who was never contacted by BAN, denies it.

"There are no plans to tow this thing to any third-world country for the purpose of disposal, scrapping or what have you," Kahn said.

Said Puckett: "Once it gets offshore, there's no jurisdiction to keep it from going to the most profitable places."

tricia.bishop@baltsun.com

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