Ghost Ship Transport Attacked From Both Sides of the Atlantic

WASHINGTON, DC, September 26, 2003 (ENS) - U.S. government plans to tow the first decaying vessels from the James River Ghost Fleet to the United Kingdom for scrapping were challenged in DC Federal District Court today by two environmental organizations seeking an emergency restraining order. The 13 old ships from the National Defense Reserve Fleet are laden with 100 tons of toxic PCBs, large amounts of asbestos, and over 3,000 tons of fuel oils.

The lawsuit was brought by the Sierra Club and by the Basel Action Network (BAN), an international network of some 30 groups including IMPACT, a group of residents in Teesside, England, where the ships are headed for deconstruction, possibly as early as next week.

Named as defendants are the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the U.S. Maritime Administration (MARAD).

The plaintiffs claim that by towing the first two of these 13 vessels across the North Atlantic Ocean next week during storm season, the agencies are violating four federal laws - the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA); the National Maritime Heritage Act, (NMHA); the Administrative Procedure Act (APA), and particularly the Toxics Substances Control Act (TSCA).

The complaint filed in court states, "MARAD is currently planning to export at least two of the thirteen NDRF [National Defense Reserve Fleet] vessels, likely the Caloosahatchee and the Canisteo, as soon as Tuesday, September 30, 2003. These ships were both built in 1945 and are in a decrepit condition."


Ghost ships of the National Defense Reserve Fleet on the James River in Newport News, Virginia(Photo courtesy MARAD)
Represented by the nonprofit, public interest law firm Earthjustice, the groups contend that the Bush administration has ignored the Toxics Substances Control Act, which prohibits the prohibits the export of PCBs, toxic chemicals known to cause liver and nervous system damage to humans and wildlife.

In May, the EPA approved an enforcement discretion to permit the export of the 13 ships to the AbleUK facility in Teesside for dismantling and recycling.

"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 U.S. poisons to other countries without such public debate or adequate assessment of the risks to the environment and public health."

"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."

In July MARAD awarded Post-Service Remediation Partners of New York a contract worth $14.8 million to remove a total of 15 ships from the James River Reserve Fleet this year. This is the largest removal of obsolete ships in a single year from the National Defense Reserve Fleet since 1993.

U.S. Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta says disposing of the ghost ships is the environmentally responsible thing to do. "As stewards of the environment, the responsible disposal of obsolete ships is a high priority for the Department of Transportation," he said in July. "The award of these contracts is welcome progress and the Bush administration has been forward thinking in facing the challenges of the James River Reserve Fleet."

The U.S. Coast Guard has indicated that Post-Service Remediation Partners has asked for a final inspection on Monday to allow for the towing permit - the last hurdle before departing, Earthjustice says.

On the other side of the Atlantic, documents obtained by Friends of the Earth UK show that the UK's Maritime and Coastguard Agency says the ships have a “high risk” of leaking on a trans-Atlantic journey.

"A risk assessment should be carried out, covering the possibility of bad weather," the agency assessment warns.

The documents were provided by the Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA) under the “spirit of open government,” Friends of the Earth said.

The MCA assessment states that the U.S. ships have "badly corroded" stern tube seals that "should be efficiently sealed to prevent water ingress."

Rivets showed evidence of "excessive corrosion," and for this reason the U.S. ships "need a thorough investigation inside and out, and repairs undertaken," the UK agency reports.

An in-water inspection should be carried out, the MCA said, and the “bending moments and shear forces affecting the ship in its present condition” need to be assessed.

Friends of the Earth Campaigns Director Mike Childs said, “Even a superficial inspection of the ghost ships reveals that they are not in a fit state to enter UK waters."

"The Maritime and Coastguard Agency must not be forced by corporate pressures to give the go-ahead," Childs said. "Instead it must put UK beaches and wildlife first and say the ships must stay in the States. The United States has the capacity, skills and moral obligation to deal with these ships.”

A MARAD document obtained by Friends of the Earth reveals that a number of the toxic ghost ships that the British company Able UK wants to bring from the United States to Teesside for disposal have been classified as having the highest possible risk of hull leakage, with the others being rated as high to medium risk.


Fishing boats at Hartlepool, England (Photo courtesy FreeFoto)
At Teesside, noted for its shipbuilding, steelworks and chemical industries, the Hartlepool Borough Council has yet to give permission for a dry dock to be built in its jurisdiction that would accomodate the U.S. ships.

Friends of the Earth's legal adviser has written to Robin Middleton, the UK Secretary of State for Transport's representative at the Maritime and Coastguard Agency urging him to exercise his powers "to the fullest possible extent" so as to avoid the potential environmental consequences that could arise if these ships leak or break up in UK waters.

Friends of the Earth has urged that these ships be refused entry into UK waters until a full environmental impact assessment has been carried out and a dry dock for their storage has been approved and built.

Back in the United States, more than 70 obsolete ships are located in the James River Reserve Fleet in Newport News, Virginia, and 60 more are docked at two other sites. MARAD is acting on a statutory deadline of September 30, 2006 to dispose of these ships in a manner that provides the best value to the government and without predisposition for foreign or domestic facilities.

MARAD says it employed a variety of procurement methodologies to achieve the best value to the taxpayer and government in order to remove as many high priority ships as possible from the James River Reserve Fleet.

"It's taken a lot of hard work to give us the results we needed and have not had for close to a decade," said Maritime Administrator William Schubert, who heads MARAD. "Working in cooperation with Congress and other government agencies has provided us the flexibility required to ensure that we can remove ships from the James River Reserve Fleet in an expeditious and cost effective manner."