US Toxic 'ghost fleet' not wanted in the UK

Feature story - 5 November, 2003
Two former US Navy ships are now crossing the Atlantic for scrapping in the UK. Contaminated with toxic waste, the failure of the US to clean them up at home has caused outrage in Europe. But have a closer look at the issue of shipbreaking: putting toxic vessels out of sight and out of mind is the rule rather than the exception -- and the recipients are usually developing countries.

Obsolete vessels from the US National Defense Reserve Fleet, or ghost fleet, anchored in the James River, near Norfol, VA. Thirteen of the vessels contain toxic materials and are slated to be towed to the UK for shipbreaking.

The "Canisteo" and "Caloosahatchee" were both built in 1945. They are contaminated with banned, cancer-causing polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), asbestos, and marine diesel oil. They are part of a fleet that was to be towed across the Atlantic in stages to a UK dry dock in Teeside for dismantling. The ships have been laid up for years on the James River, subject to a ban laid down during the Clinton Administration which took a strict interpretation of international law on exporting toxic waste from the US. The Bush administration took a different view.

The export of these ships has met criticism on both sides of the Atlantic, and sparked deep concerns that the US is simply testing the waters of opposition. The disposal of the 'ghost fleet' is a pilot project: if the export of these vessels is not challenged, more rusting old ships will leave the US with cocktails of hazardous substances still on board. Their destiny could be the UK, but could just as well be India, Bangladesh, China, Pakistan or Turkey.

Toxic? Send it far, far away.

Belatedly, the tow ships have now been denied permission to dock by the UK environment agency. The decision adds to the pressure that shipowners, including the US government, should be cleaning up ships before they are exported for breaking. Every year 600 ships like these are exported to Asian countries for breaking without proper decontamination.

The future of these two former US navy ships is now unclear. Local outrage, increasing media coverage and pressure from activists have forced UK authorities to look closer at plans for scrapping what the EU classes as hazardous waste.

It is unacceptable that the US is allowed to dump its toxic waste on the UK, despite the fact that the actual conditions under which the ships will be scrapped are far more advanced those which are employed on the majority of ships. The unfortunate irony is that this example has provoked protests and a government reaction, but there is little outrage that the UK and other nations send hundreds of similar ships every year to the Indian subcontinent for scrapping. That practice goes largely unnoticed and unregulated.

These ships should never have been sent to the UK for disposal. We oppose the export/import of hazardous materials for disposal and believe that hazardous materials should be dealt with in the country of origin, as long as suitable facilities can be provided to ensure safe disposal. The US Maritime Administration's ships clearly contain hazardous materials and the US is clearly a country that is capable of dealing with its own waste.

The UK government should now act to ensure that no further ships are sent from the US to the UK. Secondly they should urgently determine what is the best environmental solution for dealing with the ships that have already arrived.

Millions of dollars, thousands of lives.

After 25-30 years, many ships are at the end of their sailing life. These ships are sold and dismantled to recover valuable steel. But the ships also contain large amounts of hazardous materials. In the 1970s shipbreaking was concentrated in Europe. Performed at docks, it was a highly mechanised industrial operation. But the costs of upholding environmental, health and safety standards increased and the industry moved to poorer Asian states. Once-pristine beaches of India, Bangladesh, China, Pakistan and Turkey are now littered with ships and pollution. Workers there scrap the ships without any protection. Oil, PCBs and other wastes are dumped in the sea. Workers remove deadly asbestos by hand. Only the ship owners' profit from the lack of safety and environmental safe guards. They extract an average US$ 1.9m profit per ship. In India alone, one worker a day, on average, dies in the shipbreaking industry.

This the reality for the vast majority of old ships from the UK and other developed states - the toxic waste is dumped on Asia. The sight of an old, toxic rust-bucket approaching a rich country's shores has raised alarm bells -- but the same governments turn a blind eye if they head to far-off Asian shores.

We are campaigning to change this. International law states that hazardous waste must be disposed of in the country of origin and not dumped in other countries. The breaking of ships in Asia is toxic dumping in disguise -- but countries such as the UK and US are happy to ignore international law because it suits their shipping industries. The US has not even signed the relevant convention.

All ships being sold for scrap must be cleaned of hazardous material before being sold. This ensures the country that created the pollution has to clean it up. It also provides an incentive for countries to buy cleaner ships which require less cleaning before scrapping in the future. The UK should not need to clean up waste from the US but workers and the environment in countries like India, Bangladesh and China shouldn't have to deal with waste from rich countries either.

More Information

Read about shipbreaking in Asia.

Play the Shipbreaking game.

Take Action

We have selected 50 ships which might be scrapped soon. We have asked the owners of these ships to declare that their ships will be decontaminated before scrapping in Asian countries. Until that time we will follow and monitor these (and other) ships.

We need YOUR help to spot these ships and identify other ships that are in danger of sailing towards the beaches of Asia without being decontaminated.