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'Ghost Fleet': Export of Jobs, Toxic Waste is Lose-Lose Proposition

by Michael Town, Times-Dispatch Columnist - 18 October 2003
On October 2, federal Judge Rosemary Collyer placed a partial restraining order on the proposed export of 13 obsolete, aging naval vessels that make up part of the James River Reserve Fleet, more commonly known as the "Ghost Fleet." While we in the environmental community are calling for the safe removal and recycling of these toxic time-bombs as soon as possible, we were encouraged by Judge Collyer's clear demonstration of concern for trading one potential environmental disaster for another as a lose-lose proposition.

In a recent release by his office, Senator George Allen described our lawsuit (and presumably the federal judge's decision) to stop this export scheme as "radical and unfortunate." We cannot agree that it is radical or unfortunate to try to halt a scheme that would: (1) needlessly place the James River, Chesapeake Bay, Atlantic Ocean, and British coast at risk of environmental disaster; (2) rob American taxpayers; (3) transfer much-needed American manufacturing/de-manufacturing jobs overseas; and (4) willfully violate U.S. law banning the export of PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls). ENVIRONMENT: The U.S. government estimates that the first 13 vessels slated for export to the UK contain 698 tons of PCBs, over 3,000 tons of fuel oil, and over 1,200 tons of asbestos. PCBs pose a serious environmental and health threat. Any PCB spill that may occur in the ocean or in the James River can accumulate in fish and birdlife with a devastating impact on fish consumption and bird populations. PCBs are probable human carcinogens, have detrimental effects on developing children and the immune system, and have a host of other toxic effects.

The fuel oil alone, which the government refuses to drain prior to export, could likewise have a devastating impact on the local environment should there be an accident or sinking. In its own worst-case scenario the Maritime Administration (MARAD) estimates that $123 million could be spent to deal with an oil spill in the James River area.

A U.S. government survey of the mothballed vessels in the Ghost Fleet revealed that "some vessels have deteriorated to a point where a hammer can penetrate their hulls . . . ." There is already a long and frightful history of ships under tow for scrapyards going down in rough weather or in dangerous tandem tow operations like this one. Indeed, U.S. insurance companies refuse to provide insurance for just this type of tow due to the enormous risks involved. Taxpayer Rip-off: This deal appears to have been hatched primarily to enrich a few "lucky" foreign businessmen who are going to receive as part of the arrangement two unfinished high-seas fueling vessels that are estimated to provide whoever finishes and sells them an estimated $150-$250-million profit, at taxpayer expense. Domestic recyclers and Congressmen Solomon Ortiz and Curt Weldon have cried foul as this deal was accomplished with no other company allowed to provide a competitive bid for the very same, very valuable ships. If domestic companies had been provided the chance to compete for the same ships, the scrapping could have been done in the United States and at much less cost. Exporting American Jobs: Indeed, MARAD contracted with the UK company at a cost of close to $15 million. We know that U.S. ship recyclers offered to do the same job on the same 13 vessels for far less, even before MARAD signed the dubious contract. In fact, one such Virginia company, Bay Bridge Enterprises, could have done the job for about half a million less, would have avoided any of the risky overseas transport, and would have provided local jobs here in Virginia. Breaking U.S. Law: The Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) prohibits the U.S. export of PCBs without an exemption granted by the EPA through a "formal rulemaking." This procedure would require a public hearing to determine whether an exemption will be granted to applicants, thus ensuring transparency of the process. MARAD was able to bypass this crucial democratic requirement thanks to EPA deciding not to enforce the law.

THERE IS still a chance to scrap this deal and turn a lose-lose scenario into a win-win solution. There is a better way - and the last we heard it was our Senators' job to protect the environment, taxpayers, jobs, and the law.

The U.S. as a global leader can exemplify best practices in terms of environmental protection, occupational standards, and the promotion of a waste management responsibility. Just as Virginians do not support importing garbage from other states, we should not support dumping toxic waste on foreign countries.

The ruling handed down by Judge Collyer presents an opportunity for the Bush administration to re-evaluate the path it has taken. We would ask that our elected officials who have jumped on board this offshore toxic export scheme take a closer look. We can do better!

Michael Town is director of the Virginia chapter of the Sierra Club.

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