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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.

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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.

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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.”