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This Is Not Good

The Daily Press -- 6 October 2003

A federal court ruled last week that the federal Maritime Administration, custodian of the James River ghost fleet, can't go ahead with plans to send nine of the decrepit ships to England for scrapping. Four ships that are part of an expedited pilot program were cleared to go, but the others must wait until MARAD can come up with assurances that it has complied with all environmental regulations.

This is not good because it means hopes of getting these ships out of the James River are on hold.

This is not good because MARAD should have been ready and able to give the court those assurances - assurances that it is acting in an environmentally responsible fashion and observing both national laws and international compacts on transportation of hazardous waste. Federal law requires that MARAD conduct an environmental assessment of the risks posed by towing the ships, but the judge said it hasn't done so.

This is not good if it indicates that MARAD has failed to develop plans to deal safely with the very significant environmental hazards these ships present. They're chock full of nasty stuff - PCBs, asbestos, oil, fuel, mercury - and must be handled carefully to minimize environmental risks.

This is not good because it appears that what we have here is a situation in which one arm of the federal government is telling another that, in essence, it's free to break environmental laws. It's against the law to export toxic PCBs, and these ships contain tons of PCBs. Yet MARAD defended itself by submitting a letter from the EPA saying it would not enforce that law. The Bush administration has been under fire for a whole series of actions that critics decry as environmentally irresponsible; is this yet another example?

It's hard to imagine how MARAD could have gotten this close to releasing these ships - it was set to start moving them in September - without undertaking a scrupulous environmental review and putting in place safeguards to make sure that their transfer to England doesn't create environmental dangers. Hard to imagine because environmental concerns - along with money, of course - have been the elephant in the room when it comes to the ghost fleet.

The environmental danger these ships pose is, after all, the reason it's so important to get them out of the James River. Environmental hazards, along with worker safety, are the reason overseas scrapping was abandoned a decade ago, leaving the ships to languish off our shores. In this case, the concern isn't whether the English shipyard will handle hazards responsibly; MARAD says it vetted scrappers to be sure they pass muster on this point. The concern is that during the long trip to England, an accident could cause a leak of some of the vessels' noxious contents, potentially putting at risk a wide swath of marine life and long stretches of shoreline. The Atlantic can be treacherous, and these ships are fragile - priority in disposal was supposed to go, after all, to those in the worst condition, the ones most likely to pose a threat.

Addressing environmental concerns should have been number one on MARAD's "to do" list.

Hampton Roads is anxious to get rid of these derelict vessels to protect the environment along the James - but not by offloading the risk onto other bodies of water.

A final question presents itself: Environmental groups, including the Sierra Club, went to court to fight a scrapping plan they believe poses environmental risks. Where has the Sierra Club been in the long, long fight to protect the local environment from these ships? Is the James River less a priority than far-off waters?

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