Legal Challenge Keeping "Ghost Fleet" Ship Scrapping Jobs in the US

Export plan would violate law and common sense


Martin Wagner, Earthjustice 510-550-6700
Jim Puckett, Basel Action Network 206-652-5555, cell 206-779-0363
Michael Town, Sierra Club, Virginia Chapter 804-225-9113

At the federal District Court in Washington DC today, an attorney representing conservation organizations argued that the Bush administration’s plans to export ex-naval “ghost fleet” vessels from the James River in Virginia to Teesside, England for scrapping violates US and international laws that ban or regulate the export of toxics. The vessels contain many thousands of tons of carcinogenic, persistent organic pollutant PCBs, asbestos, used fuel, oils and other toxic substances. The national “ghost fleet” currently consists of over 125 vessels, but will grow in coming years.

However, toxic trade watchdog group Basel Action Network (BAN), Sierra Club, and their counsel Earthjustice, note that as a result of the legal pressure and spotlight placed on this dubious export practice, more vessels are being released to domestic scrappers and no more plans for export have been openly discussed.

“The Bush Administration’s original plan to export these vessels overseas was a stealth attempt to undermine international law,” said Jim Puckett of BAN. “First, a few of these vessels would be shunted off to the UK, thereby setting the legal precedent to open the floodgates for exports to China, India, or Bangladesh where workers are getting cancer and the scrapping is done on the cheap. We’re thrilled to see that so far our pressure has resulted in a Bush Administration flip-flop from callous disregard toward taking responsibility. Instead of dumping them on the rest of the world, we are increasingly seeing this toxic waste and these jobs stay at home as we turn these old swords into ploughshares of recycled steel.”

In October 2003, the conservation and public health groups successfully prevented the export of nine of 13 hazardous waste-laden US naval vessels destined for disposal in England. The court did allow four vessels to cross the Atlantic in the fall of 2003 and those vessels now lay moored in legal limbo in Teesside, England because the intended scrap yard is not permitted to handle toxic waste. However, Judge Rosemary M. Collyer ordered that the remaining vessels in the contract remain in Virginia pending the court’s final decision.

“The plan to scrap US vessels in England ignores the fact that American firms could do the job more safely,” said Michael Town of the Sierra Club in Virginia. “Why didn’t the Bush administration send this work to American ship breakers from the outset? We aren’t sure, but hopefully the court will put an end to the administration’s ill-conceived plan.”

Toxics Law

Under the Toxics Substances Control Act (TSCA), it is illegal to export PCBs, without a special EPA exemption granted after public hearings. Under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA), and under a treaty between the US and England, it is illegal to export hazardous wastes unless the proposed receiving facility is properly licensed and the receiving nation has consented. Under NEPA, an environmental impact statement had to be prepared for the export scheme.

Today, the groups went back to court to ensure that the agency complies with all of these laws regarding the export of hazardous wastes and to put an end to the misguided export scheme once and for all.

US Ships, US Jobs

Since the court stopped the towing of the other nine vessels to England, MARAD has contracted with American ship breakers to scrap these and about two-dozen other high priority vessels stateside. So far, ship domestic breaking facilities that have received contracts for this work include:

  • Esco Marine – Brownsville, Texas

  • All Star Metals – Brownsville, Texas

  • Marine Metals – Brownsville, Texas

  • North American Ship Recycling – Baltimore, MD

“The Bush administration is beginning to do the right thing with these ships – scrapping them domestically. But only after being blocked by a lawsuit from their plan to outsource US jobs and US responsibilities,” said Martin Wagner, attorney for Earthjustice. “The best and safest plan is to scrap the Ghost Fleet here at home.”

Background on government outsourcing of toxic ship scrapping plan

Detailed Report on this Issue

Needless Risk: The Bush Administration’s Scheme to Export Toxic Waste Ships to Europe

Additional Resources

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