Following legal action by Friends of the Earth UK, the UK Environment Agency has announced that the authorizations issued to allow the British firm AbleUK to import and dismantle 13 former US naval vessels in Hartlepool, UK are invalid. Environmental groups as well as ship recyclers in the United States have been raising serious questions about the appropriateness and legality of the scheme for months.
"We've said all along this export deal was illegal and a dangerous, reckless environmental precedent," said Jim Puckett of the Basel Action Network (BAN). "Governments on both sides of the Atlantic were not willing to face up to their responsibilities as custodians of the public trust until environmental groups shined a spotlight on this misguided scheme and dragged them kicking and screaming into their respective courthouses."
The 13 ships, moored in Virginia, are part of the 'Ghost Fleet' under the jurisdiction of the United States Maritime Administration (MARAD) and are laden with 698 tons of PCBs, 1,402 tons of asbestos, and 3,300 tons of old fuel oils. Four of the vessels are currently en route to English shipyards.
US Jobs Being Exported Overseas
"We have the technology right here in Virginia to recycle the ships in the Ghost Fleet safely," said Michael Town, director of the Virginia Chapter of the Sierra Club. "Here is another example of the Bush administration trying to make an end run around the public. This time, the attempt failed and now these leaky toxic ships may be forced back across the Atlantic Ocean. If so, the Bush administration must make sure they go directly to a safe recycling facility, not sit on the James River for decades."
Several US-based ship recyclers have asked Congress why their bids for the recycling contracts were ignored. The General Accounting Office has agreed to launch an investigation.
Adequate Facilities in the UK Do Not Exist
The authorizations that have been declared invalid include the permit to increase the amount of waste materials handled at the site as well as the authorization to allow the importation of the waste, due to the fact that a promised 24 acre dry-dock facility does not in fact exist.
The environmental groups Friends of the Earth UK, Basel Action Network, Sierra Club, and Earthjustice have declared for many weeks that the dry-dock facility promised by AbleUK did not exist. These groups have also claimed that the permits required to build a dry-dock had not been granted. These claims are now confirmed beyond doubt. The groups have filed legal actions in the United States and United Kingdom regarding this illegal toxic export scheme.
The environmental groups filed the lawsuit and requested a temporary restraining order blocking the export of the vessels on September 26 alleging, among other things, that the planned export is in violation of the PCB export prohibition found in the U.S. Toxics Substances Control Act. According to the law, an exemption from the export prohibition may be granted only through a proper rulemaking procedure involving public input, which in this case did not take place.
Courts Intervene on Both Sides of the Atlantic
A US judge has thus far issued a temporary restraining order blocking nine of the 13 vessels and allowing four to sail. MARAD has since agreed not to export any more of these vessels before first assessing the environmental risks.
Meanwhile, the first four vessels are somewhere in the North Atlantic. What will happen next with these four vessels remains uncertain. They lack permission to enter UK waters and it is therefore likely they will be forced to return to the United States.
While the environmentalists believe that the four wayward vessels should be returned to the United States as soon and as safely as possible, this should only be done under the following conditions:
- The return voyage should not be in tandem.
- The ships should be towed directly to a US shipbreaking facility.
- The return voyage should only occur if weather conditions are very favorable.
- An emergency response vessel should escort the four vessels for the entire return voyage.
- If favorable weather conditions will not occur until the spring, the vessels should be over-wintered at a US military port in Europe.
Setting a Dangerous Precedent
US groups are concerned that these ships are the tip of a toxic iceberg consisting of over 150 decaying, poison-laden US ships that the Bush administration plans to send to developing countries such as India or China where environmental and worker-protection standards are inadequate.
"Why is the Bush administration ignoring US environmental laws when domestic shipbreakers could handle these toxic ships safely and economically?" asked Martin Wagner, an attorney for Earthjustice representing the US groups. "Allowing the Bush administration to ignore the PCB export ban sets a dangerous precedent for future toxics shipments to developing countries. These ships are the United States' environmental problem. We can, and should, deal with them here."