In October 2003, the Basel Action Network (BAN) and the Sierra Club, represented by Earthjustice, sued the Environmental Protection Agency and the Maritime Administration (MARAD) to prevent the resumption of U.S. exports of highly contaminated decommissioned naval vessels for scrapping abroad. The suit alleged violations of the Toxics Substances Control Act, the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, and the National Environmental Policy Act.
The U.S. federal district court in DC ruled that four vessels could cross the Atlantic as their export was mandated by Congress, but prohibited the departure of the remaining nine until MARAD completed an Environmental Impact Assessment, obtained proper authorization to export toxic PCBs, and ensured the existence of an adequate dismantling facility in the UK. Now, after three and one-half years, MARAD has finally decided to annul the contract as the intended ship-breaker, Able UK, has been unable to obtain the permits required to conduct its business in Teesside.
"The death of this contract is good news for the environment and for American workers," said Martin Wagner of Earthjustice. "The management of U.S. toxic waste is a U.S. responsibility. Why dump our trash in other countries when we can take care of it here and create new jobs at the same time?"
It is expected that the nine ships in the James River will now be put up to bid for domestic ship recyclers. Questions remain as to what will become of the four U.S. ships that sit rusting in Teesside. The vessels contain many tons of materials contaminated with carcinogenic and highly toxic substances such as PCBs, asbestos, mercury, used fuel, and other toxic substances.
"The Bush administration's original plan to undermine international law has failed," said Jim Puckett of BAN, "They wanted to shunt a few ships off to the UK to set a legal precedent, and then open the floodgates to China, India, or Bangladesh where workers are dying of cancer and where scrapping is done without strong health and safety rules. Instead of dumping them on the rest of the world, we should be turning these old swords into ploughshares of recycled steel here at home."
The environmental groups will remain vigilant to halt any future plans to export these ships or any other U.S. ships laden with toxic waste and demand they all be scrapped properly in the United States.
Currently there are 238 old ships in the National Defense Reserve Fleet, most located in Texas, Virginia, and California, that will need to be dismantled. Some of the ships are in dangerous condition and pose an environmental threat as they have never been emptied of fuels, oils, and other hazardous substances.
"Our precious Chesapeake and San Francisco bays are no place for floating toxic time bombs," said Michael Town of the Sierra Club in Virginia. "The budget to remove these vessels and have them properly recycled here in America should have been appropriated long ago. Let's have these ships scrapped as quickly and as safely as possible here at home and close this sad chapter of exporting our problems overseas."
British firm loses contract to dismantle nine US 'ghost ships' (Guardian UK 5/31/07)
For a detailed report on the issue: "Needless Risk" (PDF)