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.
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?Skip to next paragraph
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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.
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.