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Aged ships a toxic export

A looming spike in retired vessels could send tons of PCBs and asbestos to South Asia's 'ship breakers' before new international regulations take hold.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / March 19, 2008

The Oceanic, a cruise ship retired in 2001, sat moored at a San Francisco shipyard in October. Last month it was towed out, destination uncertain. Many such ships make their way to scrap yards abroad, where hazardous materials can seep into the environment.

Scott Haefner

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Somewhere in the Pacific Ocean, an empty passenger liner is being towed on her last voyage – bound possibly for one of the infamous "ship-breaking" beach­­es of Asia to be cut up and sold as scrap.

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While the 682-foot SS Oceanic might still survive as a floating hotel or casino, her voyage is controversial. That's because the ship left San Francisco last month laden with an estimated 460 tons of asbestos and toxic PCBs embedded in its electrical and engine-room systems.

Just how dangerous that 58-year-old vessel would be if it is scrapped on a beach in the developing world, and how it managed to leave US waters despite laws prohibiting PCB waste exports are questions the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is investigating.

But the Oceanic case also highlights a serious regulatory failure, observers say. While overseas scrapping of US-government-owned vessels is prohibited, scores of privately owned commercial ships flying the US flag have in recent years been granted permission to be reregistered and sold for scrap overseas with scant attention paid by federal authorities to the tons of PCBs they likely carry with them and in conflict with a US law banning PCB waste exports, the Monitor has learned.

In the US, such reregistering or "reflagging" of a ship under a new foreign owner for the explicit purpose of scrapping it overseas is a longstanding regulatory pro­cess overseen by the US Maritime Admin­istration (MARAD). Yet neither MARAD, the EPA, or the US Coast Guard routinely monitor whether ship owners are complying with warnings on the reflagging application that they must obey US environmental laws.

The result: A commercial US ship owner can easily reflag a vessel to get the top price for its steel hull from overseas scrap yards – while skirting US environmental laws that might otherwise restrict a US-flag vessel from being disposed of there, experts say. With steel scrap prices at record levels, some ships today may bring $700 a ton in Bangladesh. That's around $20 million for a typical retired tanker.

"This is something people have been exploiting for years, and MARAD has codified this practice into a regulation that makes it legal," says John Graykowski, a former acting administrator of MARAD under President Clinton who now works with US-based ship-recycling companies. "It's high time the agency took a hard look at this issue in light of the global reforms going on in the ship-scrapping industry."

Thousands of tons of toxins

The Oceanic is not thought to have been reflagged to be scrapped just yet, environmentalists say. But the fact that it soon could be underscores an emerging global threat in the next few years: A tidal wave of hundreds of old ships carrying PCBs and asbestos expected to be cut up and their contents spilled onto beaches in developing nations.

Polychlorinated biphenyls are a mixture of chlorinated compounds, often an oily liquid or solid. Because they don't burn easily and are good insulators, PCBs are often used in electrical equipment in wiring and transformers.

But while PCBs and asbestos were phased out of US shipbuilding in the 1980s, many ships like the Oceanic that are more than 25 years old often contain hundreds of tons of asbestos and PCBs. Now these ships are coming up for scrapping, experts say.