- The Washington Times - Friday, October 31, 2003

GENEVA — International efforts to ensure hazardous waste found on old ships — such as asbestos — are safely disposed advanced here this week after officials from more than 100 countries agreed to talks to craft legal guidelines for dismantling ships that conform with global environmental rules.

The decision to press ahead was reached following the controversial U.S. export in mid-October of four obsolete U.S. Navy ships to the United Kingdom for breakup and the reputedly illegal effort to export the former French aircraft carrier Clemenceau to Turkey.

Protests by environmental groups against the export of the ships for demolition have triggered a political backlash in the European Union and Turkey.

British authorities withdrew permission yesterday for a fleet of old, rusty U.S. Navy vessels to be dismantled in England, citing outstanding environmental concerns. Four ships left Virginia this month and are expected to reach England by mid-November. More may follow next year.

Environmentalists campaigned against the arrival of the 13 “Ghost Fleet” ships, which contain toxins including asbestos, PCBs and more than 500,000 gallons of oil.

Britain’s Environment Agency had approved the contract to Able U.K. Ltd. shipyard in Hartlepool, northeastern England, on condition the ships be dismantled in dry dock. It withdrew the approval because the company did not have permission to build a dry dock and lacked appropriate waste-management licenses.

Able said it was confident it could resolve the problem by the time the first four ships reach Britain.

Once “all the environmental and planning requirements are met, there is no reason why dismantling and recovery of ships should not take place at the Able site,” said Craig McGarvey, a manager at Environment Agency.

The international guidelines would apply to both commercial vessels and warships and could restrict the export of thousands of obsolete vessels to developing countries such as India, Bangladesh, Pakistan and China, for breakups that fail to meet strict environmental norms.

Diplomats said the goal of the talks is to reach an agreement by April next year, and to put the guidelines forward for adoption by state parties to the 1989 Basel Convention on transboundary movement of hazardous wastes by October 2004.

The convention bans the export of hazardous waste from rich industrialized nations to poor developing countries. But at what point a ship becomes a waste, however, has never been clarified under the accord.

To date, 158 countries are parties to the convention, which came into force in 1992. The United States is a signatory, but has not yet ratified the accord.

The decision to move ahead emerged after talks among more than 20 maritime powers and ship-breaking countries agreed to changes requested by the United States and Japan to an earlier draft, sources said.

Mr. Pavel Suian, the Romanian chairman of the negotiating group, said: “We are moving well. There is a genuine interest by the parties to find a solution, to get a common view from the Basel convention.”

Both diplomats and environmental groups lauded the outcome.

“A big step forward. We’ve succeeded in silencing those that were wrongly concluding the Basel Convention has no authority to regulate ships as waste,” said Jim Puckett, coordinator of the Seattle-based environmental group Basel Action Network.

Similarly, a member of the U.S. delegation, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said: “We’re pleased, that parties and signatories worked together so cooperatively to arrive at a constructive way forward to issues related to ship recycling.”

Initially, 13 U.S. Navy ships were contracted to be disposed by a U.K. firm.

However, the U.S. District Court in Washington, responding to a lawsuit filed by environmental groups, ruled that just four vessels could proceed to the U.K. The court issued a temporary restraining order on the remaining nine, pending a preliminary-injunction hearing.

This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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