- The Washington Times - Monday, June 7, 2004

NORFOLK (AP) — Environmental laws that block the foreign scrapping of junk Navy ships and obsolete vessels in the James River “Ghost Fleet” could be dropped for six years, according to a new bill in Congress.

The bill is causing a stir at U.S. shipyards and among environmental groups.

Critics say the proposal, introduced late last month by Rep. Phil English, Pennsylvania Republican, would reopen the door to dozens or even hundreds of rusting old ships going to China, India and other developing nations for cheap disposal.

Idil Oyman, a spokeswoman for Mr. English, said the bill is not intended to override a ban on sending the ships overseas. Instead, she said, the legislation seeks to temporarily suspend tough environmental laws so American shipyards can better compete for ship-breaking contracts on mounting numbers of mothballed vessels.

The vessels contain toxins such as waste oil, asbestos and lead. But they’re also laden with steel, the price of which has sharply increased in recent months. The bill does not specifically spell out the domestic goal.

“We’re looking to generate affordable steel by allowing our shipyards to get at these large amounts of scrap steel on these ships,” Miss Oyman said.

Others see ulterior motives, however. Noting that the Bush administration has made no secret of its desire to export a stockpile of junk ships to China, including more than 70 moored in the James River Reserve Fleet, also known as the “Ghost Fleet,” environmental groups on Tuesday drew links between Mr. English, his bill and a drive to revive overseas shipments.

“It appears the congressman wants to outsource not only jobs, but toxic waste,” said Jim Puckett, with the Seattle-based activist group Basel Action Network. “Exempting anybody from fundamental pillars of our domestic environmental law is a mighty dumb and undemocratic idea.”

Also known as BAN, the group is part of an environmental coalition suing the U.S. Maritime Administration over its plans to scuttle 13 obsolete ships from the “Ghost Fleet” at a British shipyard. The group says the plan, consummated last year in a $17.8 million contract with the British shipyard Able UK, violates international and national laws, including several that the congressional bill would suspend for the next six years. Their case is scheduled this summer.

The laws Mr. English’s bill would temporarily drop are: the Toxic Substance Control Act, which bars exports of PCBs (short for polychlorinated biphenyls, suspected of causing cancer); the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, which governs hazardous-waste disposal; the Clean Air Act; and the Federal Water Pollution Control Act, which addresses oil and fuel spills.

It has been assigned to three different House committees. No hearings have been scheduled.

A report conducted two years ago said a 50-mile oil spill might occur if two decrepit “Ghost Fleet” ships split apart, for example, in a hurricane.

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