Ex-hospital ship has toxic PCBs, report shows

November 15, 2007|By Tricia Bishop | Tricia Bishop,Sun reporter

The Sanctuary, a retired World War II-era vessel languishing in Baltimore waters for years, contains high levels of toxic polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, according to a report obtained yesterday by The Sun.

The survey, performed in July by a company that once considered buying the former Navy hospital ship, confirms the suspicions of environmentalists. It contradicts assertions by the new owner, Potomac Navigation Inc., that the vessel contains few PCBs.

The Delaware-registered company plans to take the vessel to Greece in the next few weeks, but concerns raised by a Seattle environmental group, the Basel Action Network, could delay the process.

This year, the ship broke free of its moorings, and the U.S. Coast Guard said it "presents an unacceptable risk to the port of Baltimore."

A spokeswoman for the Environmental Protection Agency said yesterday that the organization "is actively looking into the situation" and is working with Potomac Navigation to determine what, if any, action should be taken.

The EPA has ruled that concentrations of possibly cancer-causing PCBs above 50 parts per million cannot be exported for scrap. According to chemical analysis of paint chips, the Sanctuary has PCB concentrations 10 times that high.

The analysis was provided to The Sun by a company that wanted to scrap the vessel but chose not to bid on it after test results indicated that remediation would be costly. Company representatives requested anonymity out of concerns that their involvement could affect business.

The report's significance is unclear.

The PCB levels would make it illegal to take the ship abroad and scrap it for parts, according to the Toxic Substances Control Act. The chemicals were often used to make shipboard components fireproof until they were linked to various cancers.

The Seattle environmental group raised concerns this week that that might occur, noting that the Sanctuary would be worth millions of dollars if broken up.

But if the 60-something- year-old ship is turned into a floating hotel or storage facility - as an attorney for the owner has said is the plan - it might just mean that Potomac would have to pay to remediate any hazards.

Much like asbestos, PCBs are considered benign when they are contained intact.

"The fair thing would be for us to do our own testing and to see what needed to be remediated or didn't," said Lawrence Kahn, an attorney representing Potomac Navigation. This week, Kahn said his records indicated that there were few PCBs on board.

"I was aware that other companies had done inspections of the Sanctuary. I was not aware of the extent," Kahn said. "None of those results were ever made public, and certainly not brought to the attention of Potomac Navigation. ... I think the concern over this vessel is really seriously misplaced."

The ship was sold to Potomac Navigation in a court-ordered auction in August after it was abandoned by its previous owner and left for the Maryland Port Administration to deal with.

The port agency asked the U.S. Maritime Administration, which once owned the Sanctuary, to reclaim the ship, but it chose not to do so.

"MARAD officials made it clear to us that they did not want to add another ship to the 40 or more other old ships it already has to deal with in its James River ghost fleet," Richard Scher, a spokesman for the Maryland Port Administration, said yesterday.

"The Maritime Administration sold the Sanctuary nearly 20 years ago and has no legal title to the ship," spokeswoman Shannon M. Russell said in a statement. "The U.S. District Court has sold the vessel to Potomac Navigation. We will continue to monitor the situation very closely."

tricia.bishop@baltsun.com

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