Ships sail to scrap yards via legal loophole

Three US agencies cannot agree on who has oversight on scrapping ships filled with toxic materials.

Today at least 189 oceangoing vessels of all types, 25 years old or older, fly the US flag. Ships of that vintage – from tankers to container ships – typically contain tons of asbestos, PCBs, and other toxic chemicals, far above US regulatory maximums. Where these ships go to be recycled will depend, however, on how well US regulators coordinate with one another in order to enforce existing laws restricting PCB exports.

If federal agencies talked more with one another, "a cleaner environ­ment and a more robust US ship scrapping industry" might result, says John Graykowski, a for­mer acting administrator at the US Maritime Administration (MARAD) who now works with US-based ship-recycling companies. While the US industry is bound by strict environmental regulations, "ship breakers" abroad, most notably those in South Asia, are notoriously lax – and dangerous, too.

"Why not just require that, before a ship can be reflagged for overseas scrapping, the owner must seek a US-based company's bid first?" Mr. Graykowski asks. "If no US company is available or willing, then by all means consider going overseas" if appropriate safety and environmental concerns are met.

But today there seems little agreement among US federal agencies on enforcing PCB export prohibitions. MARAD, which oversees reflagging vessels for scrapping abroad, says it "approves or disapproves reflagging of vessels according to the requirements of its program," MARAD experts wrote in an e-mail response to Monitor questions. "Those requirements ... do not include inspection of ships for PCBs." That job, a MARAD spokesman says, is up to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

EPA officials say the agency will gladly inspect ships for PCBs – and has done so. But the agency is "not re­­quired to inspect every vessel leaving the United States for scrapping for the presence of PCBs," an EPA enforcement expert's e-mail says.

The US Coast Guard inspects vessels for seaworthiness, but not for toxic materials, a Coast Guard spokesman in its San Francisco office says.

Some in Congress are concerned.

"It is deplorable that we see MARAD allowing for these ships to be taken to foreign countries that do not have our same safety measures," says Rep. Solomon Ortiz (D) of Texas, who has a ship recycler in his district. "I intend to look into this issue this year."

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