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PCB-Laden Ships to Stay at Home

Earthjustice, on behalf of the Basel Action Network and Sierra Club, stopped nine of 13 toxic ships from crossing the Atlantic from their dock in Virginia to England. These retired U. S. Navy ships, which contain toxins including asbestos, PCBs, and oil, are part of a larger fleet of more than 130 decaying ships docked around the U.S.

The U.S. Maritime Administration (MARAD), the agency responsible for the ships, attempted to export 13 of these toxic ships to England for dismantling. MARAD issued the contract to Able UK, a British firm, despite receipt of bids from U. S. firms that could do the job safely in Virginia.

On September 26, 2003, Earthjustice filed a suit against MARAD in DC Federal District Court. Earthjustice argued that exporting the 13 ships, which contain a total of more than 350 tons of PCBs, 620 tons of asbestos, and 470 tons of old fuel oil, would violate the Toxics Substances Control Act, which prohibits the export of PCBs. In response, a judge issued a temporary restraining order prohibiting nine of the 13 ships in the fleet from being towed across the Atlantic, but allowing four ships to make the trip. In the future, MARAD must assess the environmental risks vessels pose before they depart -- a step the agency omitted with the four ships that left.

On December 8, 2003, in response to legal action by Friends of the Earth UK, the High Court in London ruled that the license issued by the UK Environment Agency, enabling Able UK to dismantle the ships, was invalid. Residents of Hartlepool in northeast England were glad their protest was heard and that the ships will not be dismantled in the shipyards in their town. Currently, the four ships that made the trip wait in docks in England. While their future is uncertain, they will most likely winter there, with environmentalists advocating a return to the U. S. in better weather and calmer water