Three Controversial Ghost Ships Headed for Texas Scrapyard
WASHINGTON, DC, July 8, 2004 (ENS) - Three obsolete U.S. Navy ships will leave the James River Reserve Fleet this summer, headed for a scrapyard in Texas. They are three of the 13 so-called ghost ships that the U.S. Maritime Administration (MARAD) last year contracted to send to a British shipbreaking yard until that deal ran into legal trouble on both sides of the Atlantic.
The three ship dismantling contracts with Marine Metals of Brownsville were announced late last month by U.S. Maritime Administrator Captain William Schubert.
Marine Metals won contracts worth $3.1 million to dismantle the American Banker, the Mormacmoon, and the Santa Cruz. All three ships are considered high priority vessels for dismantling and recycling.
The ghost ships, which saw service in the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s, have become an environmental hazard to Virginia's James River because there are PCBs and asbestos aboard.
An environmental assessment conducted in 1997 shows that each vessel also contains mercury and waste oils. The waste oils themselves contain toxics - benzene and polynuclear aromatic hydrocarbons, and possibly lead, cadmium, chromium, arsenic, and xylene, the assessment concluded.
Last October, the environmental groups Basel Action Network and Sierra Club filed suit to block transport of the 13 ghost ships to England. A federal judge ruled that the first four ships could be towed to England, but ordered the other nine - including the American Banker, the Mormacmoon, and the Santa Cruz - held in the United States pending an environmental review.
The scrapyard that won the contract, Able UK, does not have the required permits in place, and the four ships - Canopus, Compass Island, Canisteo and Caloosahatchee - are moored in legal limbo at Able's dock on the Teeside. Able is working on obtaining the required permits, according to the UK's Environment Agency.
Maritime officials have negotiated a compromise, Schubert said, under which Able UK has agreed to take other ships of comparable size. That way MARAD can rid the James River of the most hazardous ships without voiding the prior contract.
"This administration is working very hard to get these ships out of the James River and on their way to qualified ship breaking yards," said Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta. "We are all very anxious to reduce the number of ships in the fleet."
There are 119 vessels dating from World War II scheduled for disposal located in the three fleet sites of the National Defense Reserve Fleet. Of these, 63 are located in the James River Reserve Fleet in Newport News, Virginia.
MARAD is acting on a statutory deadline of September 30, 2006 to dispose of the obsolete ships in a manner that provides the best value to the government and without predisposition for foreign or domestic facilities.
Schubert said, "During the 1990s, ships in this fleet accumulated due to prolonged inactivity. We have seriously faced this task in the wake of many inherited challenges and hurdles. It remains our goal to remove high priority ships from our fleets as soon as possible."
Virginia Congresswoman Jo Ann Davis, a Republican, is frustrated that the ghost ships are not leaving James River more quickly. "Small contracts will not meet the 2006 congressional mandate to have these ships removed," she said. "MARAD has a long way to go until this problem is solved."
Schubert said federal budget delays and legal proceedings have blocked the agency, which received $16 million for ship disposal this year.
Sierra Club and Basel Action Network, an international network of 30 environmental organizations, are seeking a permanent injunction in federal court to block the export of the nine ships originally headed for Able UK.
Their suit also seeks to prevent the four ships already in England from being transshipped to a third nation unless MARAD gets the consents of that nation and transit nations, and unless the proposed alternate disposal facility is properly licensed under the laws of the third nation. The case will be heard on August 6 in U.S. District Court in Washington, DC.
Of the 13 ships at issue in the lawsuit, six are being held in Virginia pending the outcome of the legal challenge - Mormacwave, Donner, Protector, Rigel, Santa Isabel, and American Ranger. Four are in England and three are on their way to Texas.
Environmentalists on both sides of the Atlantic contend that American waste should be handled in the United States and not exported to other countries, particularly, the American groups say, at the expense of American jobs.
Mike Childs, UK campaigns director for the environmental group Friends of the Earth said, "We don't want these ships in the UK. America has the capacity to deal with its own waste and the moral obligation to do so."
Several of the ghost ships are already being broken at U.S. shipyards. Bay Bridge Enterprises of Chesapeake, Virginia, was awarded a contract for five ships worth $2.76 million.
ESCO Marine of Brownsville, Texas, was awarded a contract for one ship, worth $1.44 million, and International Shipbreaking Ltd.(ISL), also of Brownsville, is dismantling one of the ghost ships at a cost of $1.35 million.
ISL submitted a proposal to scrap the 13 ships for $12.8 million - about $2 million less than the Able UK proposal, according to information obtained by Basel Action Network. MARAD and ISL declined to confirm the figure.
The Port of Brownsville is an ideal location for ship recycling, says ISL, because the manmade ship channel located 17 miles inland from the Gulf of Mexico has a 40-foot draft at mean low tide. The Port is serviced by all major modes of transportation and is well located to provide scrap material to mills in northern Mexico and the southern United States.
The environmental groups contend that the obsolete ships could be disposed of domestically in the same time frame as the export alternative and without the need for another public bidding process.
There are six ship recycling facilities currently operating in the United States, and of those four can take ships simultaneously, including ISL, which can accommodate nine vessels at once.
Democratic Texas Congressman Solomon Ortiz, whose district includes Brownsville, said last September that the General Accounting Office (GAO), the inspection arm of Congress, has agreed to investigate MARAD's award of the shipbreaking contracts to AbleUK, at his request.
"Last summer, it came to my attention that domestic ship scrapping, a big part of the Rio Grande Valley economy, is coming under attack from our own government in the form of deals and contract awards that may not have been properly bid to ensure the best price to the American taxpayer," Ortiz said. "This affects the entire domestic ship scrapping industry, particularly the Rio Grande Valley, because we are one of the few communities with an industry that performs this specialized sort of work."
As Ranking Member of the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Readiness, Ortiz expressed concern about the hazard the ghost ships pose to the environment and "MARAD's continued lack of progress in dismantling them in a responsive manner to mitigate this severe threat."
"Recent events indicate MARAD's program is not being implemented in a method to gain the best value for the U.S. taxpayer or reduce the environmental threat," Ortiz wrote in his letter of request to the GAO.
The GAO has yet to produce its report.
In fiscal year 2003, Congress appropriated $31.0 million for MARAD to dismantle the obsolete ships, and in fiscal year $16 million was appropriated.
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