The Navy's troubled ship-scrapping program and its plan to sell warships abroad came under attack yesterday from members of Congress and several environmental organizations.
Critics demanded that the Navy and Defense Department justify a program that has run into serious environmental and safety problems at yards around the country. They objected to the only alternative the Navy has offered -- sales of ships, laden with hazardous materials, to Third World scrapyards, where worker protection is minimal and pollution routine.
"I find it unconscionable that the United States would bend its own environmental laws, exporting a serious environmental and worker safety problem along with these vessels, merely for the sake of expediency," said Rep. George Miller, a California Democrat.
In letters to several government agencies, Miller cited a series of articles published last week in The Sun that described the deaths, injuries, accidents, fires and mishandling of asbestos in shipbreaking yards.
Rep. Wayne T. Gilchrest, a Maryland Republican, said last night that a subcommittee he heads would hold hearings on the ship-scrapping program.
Beginning in February, Gilchrest said, the Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation subcommittee would look into the environmental, health and safety problems linked to the transient shipbreaking industry.
Defense Department and Navy officials defended the program this week, declaring that they had tightened bidding procedures to weed out disreputable contractors and had improved the monitoring of scrapyards.
Those remarks brought renewed criticism from Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski.
"Frankly, I was disappointed in their tepid comments," the Maryland Democrat wrote to Defense Secretary William S. Cohen. "We don't need hollow promises and cliches. We need an action plan and concrete solutions."
Spokesmen for the Navy and the Defense Logistics Agency, which handles the sale of ships for scrap, said they were not prepared to comment on Mikulski's letter.
Miller said his House committee had devoted years to the problems of shipyard workers from an earlier generation who were exposed to asbestos while building Navy ships.
"I am frankly distressed to learn that many of the same kinds of hazardous conditions we investigated at that time are apparently frequently present in shipyards where government ships are being broken down," he wrote to John H. Dalton, secretary of the Navy.
Much of the congressional comment centered on the Navy's consideration of a plan to sell its obsolete ships to yards in South Asia. Most overseas shipbreaking is done on beachfront plots in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh.
In Alang, India, the largest shipbreaking center in the world, 35,000 men work and live in wretched conditions. Death by accident and disease is an everyday occurrence.
Proponents of the export plan have pointed out that the U.S. government could receive more money for its ships; unregulated foreign yards have much lower costs.
"Maximizing the profits from vessel scrapping is not sufficient justification for the United States exporting toxic wastes to countries not equipped to dispose of them properly," Miller said in his letter to Dalton.
The Environmental Protection Agency signed an agreement with the Navy last summer that would lift a ban on the export of warships, which was put in place because of PCB-containing materials on board.
PCBs, or polychlorinated biphenyls, were used extensively for 50 years in electrical insulation, in air system gaskets and fluorescent light fixtures. They have been linked to cancer, liver and skin disease, and developmental problems in infants.
Under the agreement, the most accessible PCB-bearing materials would be removed, but others could remain on the ships. Although it pushed hard for that agreement, the Navy has not moved to carry out the plan.
Sen. John Glenn, an Ohio Democrat, expressed concerns about the agreement.
"I don't like the way it was done," he said. "The rule-making process is there for a good reason, to let all the interested parties comment and make sure safety is paramount. And yet they went ahead and changed the way of doing business.
"That's not right. That's not taking the safety or workers here or abroad into account."
Steven Herman, the EPA's assistant administrator for enforcement, defended the agreement. He said the agency required the removal of the most hazardous PCBs before export as well as notification to the countries where the ships would be sent.
"Our moral responsibility is to do as much as we can to try and protect people's health and safety," he said. "On the other hand, we can't control what other countries do. Even if we wanted to, it's not possible."
But environmental groups dismissed such arguments.
"I think it's a classic case of toxic colonialism," said Joshua Karliner, executive director of the Transnational Resource and Action Center, a nonprofit group in San Francisco.
The export of Navy ships, he said, "is basically taking a toxic-laden hulk of waste and finding the cheapest and least-regulated way to dispose of it, and saying the hell with the social and environmental consequences of what we're doing."
Michael McCloskey, chairman of the Sierra Club, said he was particularly alarmed about shipping PCBs abroad.
"I think the United States has a clear responsibility there," he said, although he hasn't seen the particulars of the agreement. "If the United States manufactures them and they are now in the United States, we should take care of them."
Polly Parks, a military environmental consultant in Washington, said sales of ships to South Asia could create a political and economic liability for the United States.
"I mean, good grief, they're sending over ships that have asbestos in them?" she said. "If we have a work force in this country that can do the job, and we have standards, we have a responsibility to do the job ourselves."
GRAPHIC: PHOTO, PERRY THORSVIK : SUN STAFF, Awaiting a decision: In an aerial view, mothballed U.S. warships lie side by side at the Philadelphia Navy Yard.
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