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Out of Sight

The Baltimore Sun - 12 September 2003

TWO MOTHBALLED American ships moored in Virginia's James River are about to begin a trans-Atlantic voyage to a scrapper's yard in northeastern England as a sort of test run for what is a shockingly irresponsible idea - the renewed dumping of toxic U.S. government ships overseas.

The Maritime Administration owns these old vessels, and about 100 others, and wants to get rid of them - they're leaky rustbuckets that pose a considerable environmental and safety risk to the waterways that now hold them. But they're shot through with harmful chemicals (notably polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs) and they have no business leaving these shores.

At one time, the Maritime Administration was content to sell off unwanted ships to breakers' yards in China, India and Pakistan, with no thought given to the damage inflicted on the workers and coastlines of those countries. That came to a stop five years ago, when the Clinton administration imposed a moratorium on overseas sales. Since then, American yards - which had serious shortcomings of their own - have greatly improved their practices and are qualified to do the careful work required.

Yet MARAD, as the agency is known, is inexplicably determined to send its poisonous fleet abroad. First, it won congressional approval to circumvent the moratorium. This summer, the Environmental Protection Agency waived enforcement of a law that prohibits the export of toxic substances for disposal. Now MARAD awaits only Coast Guard certification that the ships are seaworthy enough to be towed across the ocean; departure could come next week.

The two merchant vessels are the first of 13 ships that were part of a $17.8 million deal between MARAD and Post-Service Remediation Partners, a New York outfit. They are to be broken up at a yard called Able UK, which has yet to receive a permit to do the work. Environmentalists in the Teesside region of England are vigorously protesting the project. They say England shouldn't be a "dustbin" for American wastes.

It's reasonable, of course, to expect that once the ships get to England - assuming they don't sink on the way - they will be disposed of in a responsible fashion. The problem is this: A very dangerous precedent is being established. This time, the EPA waiver allows worn-out old ships to go to an advanced industrial nation. Next time, the agency may be pressured to allow the export of ships to South Asia, where working conditions are still horribly unacceptable.

How badly did MARAD want this deal? It ignored a lower bid from a yard in Texas, and it threw into the deal two unfinished Navy tankers that won't be scrapped but can be resold for use. That's an astonishing windfall for Post-Service Remediation Partners.

The larger point, though, is that American waste products shouldn't be dumped overseas - especially when it comes at the price of American jobs.

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