Relaxed US Rules Fuelled Toxic ''Ghost Ships''

by Jim Lobe

Dissident Voice
November 11, 2003


The Bush administration's relaxation of U.S. environmental regulations enabled the four rusty World War II-era ships that were the subject of a UK High Court ruling Wednesday to set sail for Britain to be turned into scrap.


A High Court judge in London granted a temporary injunction requested by Friends of the Earth (FoE) forbidding a British company from dismantling the ships until a full hearing can be held next month.


Because the ships lack official permission to enter British ports, the FoE and other environmental groups are calling for them to return to the United States at the earliest possible date.


Britain's Environment Agency (EA) announced last week that permits issued to the British firm Able UK to import and dismantle the four ships, plus nine others that are mothballed on the James River in southern Virginia, were invalid. The EA did not contest FoE's action and has also urged that the ships be returned.


''If the UK government and its agencies don't secure their immediate return,'' warned FoE UK Director Tony Juniper on Tuesday, ''then these toxic time bombs could be sitting off our coast within days, threatening our environment indefinitely''.


Environmental groups on both sides of the Atlantic, including the Sierra Club, Earthjustice and the Basel Action Network (BAN), have been protesting the scheme to sail the ships, which are laden with thousands of tons of toxic materials -- including PCBs, asbestos and contaminated fuel oils -- across the ocean for dismantling, particularly when ship recyclers in the United States could do the job.


Several U.S. recyclers have asked Congress why their bids to dismantle the ships were rejected or ignored, and Congress' General Accounting Office (GAO) has agreed to investigate.


''We have the technology right here in Virginia to recycle the ships in the Ghost Fleet safely,'' said Michael Town, director of the Sierra Club's Virginia chapter Tuesday. ”This is another example of the Bush administration trying to make an end run around the public,” he added in a statement.


Former President Bill Clinton outlawed the sale of mothballed ships for scrap overseas both because of the environmental hazards they posed to ocean waters and because of growing public concern that toxic wastes were being shipped to developing countries where workers were inadequately protected from exposure to poisonous chemicals.


But the administration of President George W. Bush won a waiver from its Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to send the ships overseas.


The case of the four U.S. ships highlights a growing problem, as governments try to dispose of decommissioned naval vessels, many of which are highly toxic.


In another case, a French aircraft carrier, the Clemenceau, is currently anchored off Sicily awaiting resolution of a number of disputes arising from a contract by a Spanish salvaging company to dismantle it.


When French reconnaissance planes found the ship under tow, apparently bound for Turkey, it rescinded the contract, according to the 'Financial Times' newspaper. The French government had stipulated that the asbestos on the ship had to be removed within the European Union (EU).


The 13 U.S. ships are part of the ''Ghost Fleet'' under the jurisdiction of the United States Maritime Administration (MARAD). Two of the four ships that are currently underway are due to enter British waters Friday if they are not ordered home before then.


Britain's EA originally granted Able UK a modification to its waste-management license to carry out the work in September but then last week declared it ''invalid'' after FoE started legal proceedings.


But merely declaring it ''invalid'' will not necessarily stop the ships from docking in Britain, which is why the group went to court to have the ruling formally revoked or quashed.


A major problem with the scheme surfaced when it turned out that a promised 10-hectare dry-dock facility where the work was to be performed does not exist, something the environmental groups have been warning about for weeks.


The groups went to court to get an injunction blocking the export of the ships in late September. They argued, among other things, that the scheme violated a provision in the U.S. Toxic Substances Control Act that barred the export of PCBs in the absence of a waiver granted only through a rulemaking procedure that included public input.


The U.S. judge in the case issued a temporary restraining order blocking nine of the 13 ships, but allowing the four now underway to sail.


The groups said they are concerned that these ships represent just the ''tip of a toxic iceberg'' of more than 150 toxic and mothballed ships that are rusting in U.S. waters, and that the Bush administration plans to send the rest to developing countries, such as India and China, which have lower environmental and worker-protection standards.


''Why is the Bush administration ignoring U.S. environmental laws when domestic ship breakers could handle these toxic ships safely and economically''? asked Martin Wagner, an Earthjustice attorney on Tuesday.


The circumvention of the PCB export ban could set a particularly dangerous precedent, he added, in a statement.


Jim Lobe is a political analyst with Foreign Policy in Focus (online at www.fpif.org). He also writes regularly for Inter Press Service. He can be reached at: jlobe@starpower.net


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