Four ‘toxic time bombs’ heading for Teeside

US environmental groups, the Basel Action Network and the Sierra Club have been granted a partial restraining order banning the movement of nine of thirteen so-called toxic ‘ghost ships’ from the US to the UK.

Despite the fact that the UK Environment Agency has given the green light for UK-based Able to dismantle 13 US toxic ‘Ghost Fleet’ naval vessels, two US environmental groups attempted to prevent the plan from going ahead last week by filing suit in the Washington DC Federal District Court.

The two groups, The Basel Action Network (BAN) and the Sierra Club filed suit on September 26 in the Washington DC Federal District Court to stop the US Maritime Administration (MARAD) from allowing the vessels from being towed across the Atlantic Ocean.

The environmentalists sought an emergency restraining order to halt the first shipment of ships from the James River in Virginia to Able’s facilities in Teesside, England where they will be scrapped.

Yesterday, October 2 Judge Rosemary Collyer partially granted a request for a temporary restraining order (TRO) but the ruling will allow MARAD to begin to immediately move four of 13 former US naval vessels. The decision puts a hold on the remaining nine ships until after a second court hearing on October 20.

‘Clearly the judge is concerned, but the Bush Administration is still being allowed to begin a needlessly risky venture that puts the health of the global environment and two coastal communities in serious jeopardy,’ said Jim Puckett of BAN. ‘We have strong faith that despite this foolhardy launch of the first of these dilapidated toxic time bombs toward foreign shores, sanity will soon prevail and this misguided scheme will itself be scrapped.’

The groups say that the 13 ships are in serious states of deterioration with several of them already having leaked oil into the James River. They say that, according to the US Government’s own estimates, the vessels are laden with 100 tons of persistent and toxic PCBs, and over 3,000 tons of fuel oils.

‘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?’

Under the US 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 contended that the Bush Administration 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 US 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 Puckett. ‘But whether it’s the UK or China, we should not be throwing our toxic trash on our global neighbours. 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.’

Able UK submitted an application to the UK Agency on July 31 2003 to modify its existing licence for its Teesside Reclamation and Recycling Centre (TERRC) site, to permit an increase in its handling capacity from 24,500 to more than 75,000 tonnes per year to accommodate the US vessels.

The Agency granted the modification after it undertook what it called ‘a thorough assessment’ reviewing all the potential environmental risks to the Tees Estuary and surrounding sensitive habitat sites. This assessment involved looking at the potential impact, of not only the waste management licence modification, but also all other relevant plans and projects, such as creating a temporary bund and installing new dock gates so that the dry dock can be used for dismantling vessels/ships.

It did, however, restrict the annual tonnage handled to 200,000 tonnes.

Further discussion on the issue can be found <A HREF=’http://www.earthjustice.org/news/documents/10-03/GhostFleetTROdecision.pdf’>Here</A>