British balk at shipbreaking deal

Thirteen old US vessels are being towed to England to be scrapped, but locals worry about toxic waste.

Each year, as many as 600 ships, many decrepit and laced with toxic material, are dispatched thousands of miles around the globe to be disposed of, often in the third world.

But last week, two rusting US Navy vessels set out on a potentially risky journey across the Atlantic - to be dismantled in northern England.

A British shipyard is being paid $17 million to dispose of these two ships plus 11 other US vessels that have been rusting in Virginia's James River for 15 years and are contaminated with PCBs, asbestos, and heavy diesel.

The transatlantic deal is focusing fresh attention on the multimillion- dollar global shipbreaking trade, which sends hundreds of outdated vessels each year to countries such as Bangladesh, India, Pakistan, and China, where regulations are more lax. And it is stirring concern over possible threats to public health and the environment.

British authorities argue it is better to dispose of such dangerous material in a country with the proper facilities. They have sought to play down fears of environmental degradation by pointing out that less than 1.5 percent of the total bulk of the ships is toxic waste.

But critics, including environmentalists and local residents, say that the ships, some of which are 50 years old and in parlous condition, could disintegrate in the ocean. And if they do survive the trip, their toxic elements could pollute both land and sea.

"These are US ships, in US waters," says Neil Verlander of Friends of the Earth in London. "Basically they should be cleaning up their own mess, rather than exporting it abroad, particularly given the state of disrepair of the ships, which will have a hazardous journey across the Atlantic."

The US Navy has more than 100 obsolete vessels, and pressure has been mounting for them to be disposed of before they cause an ecological catastrophe.

The US Maritime Administration, which is responsible for disposing of the James River "ghost fleet," insists that the vessels have been properly surveyed and will not be moved until certified safe. Two more vessels are set to head for northeast England soon, but the other nine are still the subject of court battles over their seaworthiness.

A US Maritime spokeswoman says that the British firm, Able UK, was chosen because "they made us an excellent offer and they have one of the best facilities in the world." But the deal is raising hackles on both sides of the Atlantic. Some British and European politicians are concerned that it may be the start of a trend. "We don't want to become the United States' dustbin," says an EU spokesman.

US shipyards, meanwhile, are frustrated that the work has gone to a foreign company. Able UK won the tender with the lowest bid. That has led some to wonder how the firm could undercut US companies despite the steep cost of towing the vessels across the Atlantic.

It's a question also being posed by angry residents of the English town of Hartlepool, where the ships are to be scrapped.

"It's strange that someone on the other side of the sea can make a profit if the people in America who live in the same area as the ships can't make profit," says Iris Ryder, a countryside warden who lives and works close to the dock where the ships will be broken up.

"It's not very reassuring," she adds. "Their idea is to dismantle them in a dry dock, even though they haven't got permission for one, and then bury the asbestos under a layer of clay. That's not what I call high-tech."

Shipbreaking often isn't. An International Labor Organization conference on the industry this past week in Bangkok heard how this is one of the most hazardous jobs in the world. Many ships are drenched in asbestos, lead paint, and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), a compound that the US Environmental Protection Agency says may cause cancer. Critics say that shipbreaking sites on the Asian subcontinent are "time bombs" because the toxic substances have not been disposed of adequately. "The shipowners don't pay for proper dismantling," says Frank Petersen of Greenpeace's Amsterdam office. "As long as the customer doesn't need it, the shipbreakers don't take the responsibility."

In northeast England, where the Teesside area has a longstanding shipbuilding tradition, but as one local activist says: "You can't really crack a bottle of champagne on a rusting hulk."

Townspeople packed a recent council meeting to denounce officials who signed off on the deal. One survey found 92 percent opposed to it, with many questioning the facilities of the company to handle the ships.

Able UK has said there will be minimal risk to the local environment, even though the council is reviewing its scrapyard facilities. It rebuts arguments that the transportation of the vessels could pose a threat to sealife, and argues that the work will create 200 jobs in a depressed part of the country.

Neil Marley, a researcher who lives "three miles as the asbestos flies" from the scrapyard, says more jobs could be destroyed, however, if something goes wrong. "There are tourism jobs, fishing jobs, marina development jobs that would be threatened," he says.

There is also concern that if Able carries off the project well, it will push for more business. With scores more aging American ships looking for a graveyard, this could be a growth industry.

"We are worried he's going to bring more ships in," says Mr. Marley, adding ominously: "And the British nuclear fleet is also due to be decommissioned."

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