Are aging ships still a toxic export?

Environmental groups worry that the practice of reflagging US commercial ships that may have PCBs so they can be scrapped abroad is beginning again.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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    The MV Bonnyman, shown earlier when it was used by the US Navy, has been renamed the Bonny and is now flying the flag of St. Kitts and Nevis. Some environmentalists worry that the ship is headed for a scrapyard in India or Bangladesh. But the Environmental Protection Agency hasn't determined if it's free of toxic chemicals such as PCBs.
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On the docks at Norfolk, Va., two geriatric commercial cargo ships – the Bonny and the Anders - are now loading what may be their last commercial cargo before finally setting sail for the scrapping yards of some developing country. Are they laden with tons of toxic chemicals that will spill into the environment once they are cut up – or not?

It’s a question that lurks over three-decades-old vessels like these - a vintage that environmentalists say were commonly constructed using tons of asbestos and toxic polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs).

But the bigger concern is whether the US will – or even can – require that such vessels be checked before they are sent abroad.

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As long ago as 1976, Congress banned US export of toxic materials abroad where few protections for the environment or workers exist. Under the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) of 1976, PCB waste – including entire ships if they carry high-enough concentrations of PCBs – may not be exported overseas or even put into use as “distribution in commerce.”

But that’s exactly what US commercial ship owners have been doing for years by sailing through a giant legal loophole: reflagging.

By first selling a US vessel to a new foreign owner – flying a foreign flag – the former US ship now a foreign ship can then be scrapped abroad quite legally. Is this to be the Bonny and the Anders’s fate?

If so, it would not be uncommon.

The Bonny, which was a US-flag vessel just last week, is this week flying the St. Kitts and Nevis flag, according to the Basel Action Network (BAN), an environmental group fighting exports of pollution from developed to undeveloped nations.

Ships such as this are today often worth more for the value of their scrap steel than if they are sitting idle or even carrying partial loads in a weak market. So ship owners are increasingly looking to scrapping yards abroad for top dollar – and the least cost to dismantle these aging behemoths.

Often such a “yard” is actually just a beach – as in India and Bangladesh - where ships are run aground. There, in the shallow waters, workers with cutting torches but little personal protection or other equipment, slice up the ship, often spilling PCBs and asbestos and even heavy steel slabs onto themselves and into the environment.

Scores of deaths are reported annually.

In March 2008, a Monitor article highlighted the reflagging-for-scrapping case of the 682-ton cruise ship – the SS Oceanic. Over an eight-year period since 2000, at least 91 US-flag commercial vessels, including old oil tankers, were approved for reflagging under a provision for overseas scrapping, the Monitor also reported.

The Oceanic case occurred, says BAN president Jim Puckett, because the two US agencies in charge – the Maritime Administration (MARAD) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) – essentially followed a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy toward US commercial ship reflagging. The EPA didn’t ask about reflagged ships - and MARAD didn’t tell its sister agency when reflagging applications for ships likely to carry PCBs popped up.

After the Oceanic debacle, however, MARAD and EPA established new procedures. MARAD now notifies the EPA of vessels subject to reflagging or scrapping applications - and EPA headquarters must sign off on the application – satisfied the ship is in compliance with TSCA and other laws.

Even so, some question whether the old practice of reflagging US commercial ships that may have PCBs so they can be scrapped abroad - is beginning all over again.

MARAD notified the EPA of the reflagging of the Bonny and the Anders. Following up, regional EPA staff noted in a July letter to the ships’ new owners that “based upon the age of the vessels, it is possible that these vessels contain regulated quantities of polycholorinated biphenyls (PCBs).”

The letter continues that PCBs have been found in “vessels of similar vintage as the MV Anderson and Bonnyman” – renamed the Anders and the Bonny. It also warns that if the ship has such contaminants, TSCA prohibits “distribution in commerce, use or export for disposal, including dismantling.”

But the EPA now maintains that neither ship is likely to have PCBs on board – and both ships are apparently preparing to set sail within days, says a worried Mr. Puckett.

In an e-mail response to details questions from the Monitor, EPA spokesman Terri White says: “We are continuing to ask questions and investigate this. Based on information we have so far, it appears a low likelihood that there are PCBs on the ships.”

One senior US regulatory official with knowledge of both ships says the ships are unlikely to contain PCBs because Denmark, where they were manufactured, had banned their use in ship construction in the mid-1970s, before the two ships were built – (Bonnyman in 1980 and Anderson in 1979). Another factor is the paint used by US owners probably would not have contained PCBs because that, too, was prohibited by the time the ships were operating in the US.

But aside from that, he says, the EPA can’t afford to make a mistake – it has to pick clear-cut cases to pursue. He cites the case of the MV Sancturary, a former US Navy hospital ship during World War II now privately owned. The EPA has been tied up in court for two years still seeking to test it for PCBs.

“We want to stop the ships that are likely violators,” he says requesting anonymity because he was not permitted to speak publicly. “If you have limited resources, you want to apply them where you can succeed.”

But Puckett says if the two ships are ultimately released to proceed overseas, there is a clear indication of where they will likely end up: Destination for both ships are listed as a scrapping yard in India, according to a ship brokers report last month, although the ultimate destination may have changed to a Bangladesh scrapyard, he says.

“The big picture here is that the US is staring at evidence that one of its former military sealift transport ships in all likelihood has PCBs on it,” he says. “Now it is just turning a blind eye to sending it to the beaches [scrap yards] of south Asia where people are dying. We haven’t done this since the Clinton administration banned it in 1998, and now we’re being complicit.”

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