Judge Rosemary Collyer of the Washington, D.C., federal district court partially granted a request for a temporary restraining order brought by Earthjustice on behalf of the Basel Action Network and the Sierra Club. The ruling will allow the U.S. Maritime Administration (MARAD) to immediately tow four of 13 dilapidated and obsolete naval vessels from the James River in Virginia to a scrap yard in Teeside, in northeast England. The first two ships contain over 68 tons of highly persistent and toxic PCBs as well as over 120 tons of cancer causing asbestos. They will likely sail as early as Friday. The decision puts a hold on the remaining nine ships until after a second court hearing on October 20.
“Clearly the judge is concerned, but the Bush administration is still being allowed to begin a needlessly risky venture that puts the health of the global environment and two coastal communities in serious jeopardy,” said Jim Puckett of BAN. “We have strong faith that despite this foolhardy launch of the first of these dilapidated toxic time bombs toward foreign shores, sanity will soon prevail and this misguided scheme will itself be scrapped.”
The decision was a surprise because, as reported by Reuters over the weekend, the UK Environment Agency has informed MARAD that allowing any of the U.S. “ghost fleet” to sail to Britain “before all required regulatory approvals are in place…may lead to the ships being repatriated to the United States.” Indeed there is not even a dry-dock facility in place which is a requirement of the contract. According to Friends of the Earth UK, all of the planning permissions to build a seawall or bund to create a drydock basin have not been given and may never be given. If the permissions are not in place when the ships arrive in England, they might be sent back across the North Atlantic, a needless doubling of a highly risky venture.
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. According to the environmental groups, the failure of the TRO is not a reflection of the success of the larger lawsuit and allegation.
“This round one decision is by no means a final decision on whether it’s legal to export these toxic ships to another country,” said Earthjustice attorney Martin Wagner. “We believe the court must find that any exemption to the PCB export ban can only come after the public has had a chance to weigh in.”
Judge Collyer’s decision comes at a moment when a new hurricane Kate has formed and is bearing westward toward the coast of the US.
“It is hard to understand the Bush administration’s rationale for placing the global environment and sensitive ecosystems like the Chesapeake Bay at needless risk, when we have companies right here in Virginia that can dismantle and recycle these ships safely, said Sierra Club’s Michael Town. “This is doubly puzzling when we now learn that an adequate dry-dock facility to recycle the vessels is not in place in England as is required.”