- The Washington Times - Monday, May 31, 2004

NORFOLK (AP) — Fewer James River “Ghost Fleet” ships than expected will be towed to England and dismantled this year, U.S. Maritime Administration officials said.

Lingering legal and permit hurdles are threatening to delay a $17.8 million Maritime Administration contract with British shipyard Able UK for the scrapping of 13 vessels.

“It seems very unlikely” the hulks will leave the river this year, said Maritime Administration spokeswoman Susan Clark.

The federal agency has until September 2006 to get rid of about 150 obsolete ships moored in Virginia, Texas, California and Alabama. Four of the ships were towed 3,000 miles across the Atlantic last fall.

The government of Prime Minister Tony Blair initially wanted to return to Virginia the rusting ships filled with tons of oil, asbestos, lead and PCBs, or polychlorinated biphenyl, a toxic chemical used as an insulating agent.

But earlier this month, the government reversed itself. It said the vessels could be disposed of in Britain if Able UK receives waste permits and protects a neighboring bird sanctuary.

Meanwhile, U.S. environmental groups still are opposing the overseas shipments. Several groups, including the Virginia chapter of the Sierra Club, sued the government last year. They argued that the shipments violate national and international laws against exporting hazardous wastes. They also argued that the U.S. government misled regulators about the necessity of the deal and that unwanted vessels should be scrapped domestically.

“I find it absolutely absurd that we’ve had to come this far when all we want to do is handle our own wastes and give responsible shipyards some work,” said Mike Town, state director of the Richmond-based Sierra Club.

Several U.S. shipyards have been hired to “break” a handful of mothballed ships, including Bay Bridge Enterprises in Chesapeake. That company is scuttling five vessels at its recycling facility on the Elizabeth River. Company officials have said they intend to bid for more work, adding that Congress appropriated $16 million next fiscal year for scrapping.

In the District, U.S. District Judge Rosemary M. Collyer ruled last year that the first four Ghost Fleet ships — the Canisteo, Caloosahatchee, Compass Island and Canopus — could go to England as a “pilot project.” But she would not let the other nine leave their moorings off Fort Eustis in Newport News until a formal hearing is concluded. That hearing has been set for Aug. 6.

Environmental groups were heartened by a decision earlier this month to bar a former Navy ship stored in California from being towed to China for dismantling. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) said the presence of PCBs aboard the Crescent City made its export to China impossible without first removing them.

The groups say the EPA should act similarly with the Ghost Fleet. The agency, however, gave the Maritime Administration an exception to the export ban as part of the Able UK contract.

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