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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.

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But that's not the case for privately owned commercial vessels. For them, American laws to deal with the toxic materials aboard ships bound for the scrap yard are a slender reed. The US, for instance, did not sign the Basel Convention of 1989, an international law barring toxic waste exports from one country to another without formal notification.

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Limits to EPA's policing

Yet the US does have one powerful legal cudgel: the Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976 or TSCA. Under it, PCB waste – including entire ships if they carry high-enough concentrations of PCBs – may not be exported overseas. That law applies to all federal agencies and the private sector, with the EPA as a key enforcer, legal experts say.

If the EPA believes an owner "intends to export a ship for scrapping in violation of [TSCA], it can take appropriate enforcement action including an inspection, to determine the presence of PCBs on the vessel," an EPA enforcement expert writes in an e-mail response to Monitor questions.

The EPA has indeed taken action to keep a handful of former government ships containing PCBs from leaving the US. But it has a critical problem: It rarely knows in advance which ships may soon be bound for scrapping overseas – unless environmental groups or ship aficionados blow the whistle. That's what happened – too late – with the Oceanic. Historic ship watchers found out the ship was leaving and told environmentalists, who informed the US Coast Guard and the EPA – but by that time the ship had left port.

The reason that US-flag ships like the Oceanic exist at all is so the government can use them during wartime. In order to retain sufficient vessels for national-security reasons, MARAD has long been required to approve any sale to a foreign owner or the reregistering of a vessel to another nation.

Still, there is no interagency agreement for MARAD to routinely notify the EPA when ships are to be reflagged for scrapping abroad, the two agencies concur. As a result, MARAD does not tell the EPA of any ships that may receive a "transfer order." Nor does the EPA routinely request such information.

"These are agencies working at cross purposes that should know a ship is departing in possible violation of US environmental law – and they don't do anything," says Basel Action Network's Mr. Puckett.

Onus on ship owners

Spokesmen for the EPA and MARAD requested and answered e-mailed questions as well as by phone about PCB and reflagging issues. But requests to interview senior officials were refused.

"Ship owners are responsible for complying with the PCB export ban," Roxanne Smith, an EPA spokeswoman, wrote in a statement. Since clamping down recently on some vessels, the EPA "is continuing to work with MARAD and other federal agencies to examine ways to improve our interagency coordination so that all federal enforcement capabilities and resources can be employed to thwart violations."

But a number of ships have sailed already. Since 2000, at least 91 vessels – including old oil tankers – were approved by MARAD for reflagging under a provision for overseas scrapping.

It isn't known whether those ships were inspected for PCBs. But even though ships of that vintage typically contain hundreds of tons of PCBs, MARAD currently does not require a proof of inspection from owners that shows a ship is free of PCBs before it grants a transfer order permitting reflagging and scrapping overseas, the agency confirms. Although not now required, such certification is within MARAD's right to demand under its regulations, Mr. Graykowski says.

Shannon Russell, a MARAD spokeswoman, denies that her agency, an arm of the US Department of Transportation, has routinely overlooked environmental laws in ship reflagging.