The Basel Action Network (BAN) and Sierra Club, represented by Earthjustice, filed suit today in DC Federal District Court to stop the US Maritime Administration (MARAD) from allowing the towing of the first 2 of 13 toxic “Ghost Fleet” naval vessels across the Atlantic Ocean from the James River in Virginia to the AbleUK company in Teesside, England, for scrapping.
The groups are also seeking an emergency restraining order to halt the first shipment, which they believe MARAD’s contractor is planning to accomplish next week. Already, the Coast Guard has indicated that the contractor has asked for a final inspection on Monday the 29th of September to allow for the towing permit – the last hurdle before departing.
The 13 ships are in serious states of deterioration with several of them already having leaked oil into the James River. According to the government’s own estimates the 13 vessels in this deal are laden with 100 tons of persistent and toxic PCBs, and over 3,000 long tons of fuel oils. Loud protests over the wisdom of this toxic export from an environmental and an economic standpoint have been voiced on both sides of the Atlantic.
“We have the technology to safely recycle the ‘ghost fleet’ and provide much needed jobs right here in Virginia,” said Michael Town, director of the Virginia Chapter of the Sierra Club. “So why does the Bush Administration want to haul it across the Atlantic and chance an ecological disaster during hurricane season? This is just another example of the Bush Administration making an end run around the public.”
Under the Toxics Substances Control Act (TSCA), it is illegal to export PCBs, which are highly toxic chemicals known to cause liver and nervous system damage to humans and wildlife even in microscopic amounts. The suit contends that the Bush Administration has basically ignored the TSCA, which prohibits EPA from lifting the ban without an open public process to determine that the export and handling of the PCBs will not threaten human health or the environment.
“The law of the land is that it is illegal to export PCBs,” said Earthjustice attorney Martin Wagner. “The same law provides that if you want special exemption from the export ban, the public has to have a say in that very serious decision. Yet the Bush Administration decided to send US poisons to other countries without such public debate or adequate assessment of the risks to the environment and public health.”
The environmentalists are especially concerned that these ships are the tip of a toxic iceberg. They are concerned over what they call a needless risk of irreparable harm in the immediate toxic ship towing scheme, but are also extremely concerned of the precedents that will be set if the “enforcement discretion” decision is not reversed. They are particularly concerned with the Administration’s keen interest to export the bulk of the “ghost fleet” to China where workers are paid very low wages and must toil without the social, legal, and medical safety-net U.S. workers enjoy.
“This export to the UK gives the Bush Administration its vital precedent and first foot out the door to begin the wholesale dumping of this fleet of toxic ships on poor Asian communities,” said Jim Puckett. “But whether it’s the UK or China, we should not be throwing our toxic trash on our global neighbors. With all of our own shipbuilders out of work, it is a no-brainer that we should more responsibly build up our own domestic recycling infrastructure to do the job safely at home.”