US plans to dump toxic navy ships on poor countries

Feature story - 11 December, 2002
It's a logical premise - industrialised nations should not dump their waste on developing countries. Developing countries have enough problems, they don't need toxic and hazardous wastes dumped on them as well. But logic is not a word that is often associated with the US government these days.

Worker scrapping ship at Alang scrap yard

The US Congress and the Bush administration reversed a moratorium against toxic waste ship dumping. Instead they will set aside $20 million to be used for a pilot project next year to export up to four vessels from the rusting National Defense Reserve Fleet as well as sinking ships at sea for artificial reefs.

If the government deems the pilot project a success, the total number of ships that could be exported abroad by the US would be around 300-400 over the next few years. These ships are known to contain significant quantities of hazardous asbestos and polychlorinated biphenyls PCBs.

In the past US ships have gone to India, a major destination for hazardous ship scrap. They end up on once pristine beaches of India, where workers thre scrap the ships without any protection. Toxic waste is released into the environment. The only ones who profit are the ship owners. But the US has not sold a vessel to overseas markets for scrapping since 1994.

The new pilot project agreement reverses a moratorium put in place by the Clinton administration because of the concerns about human health and the environment in ship scrapping nations. Many thousands of workers are routinely hurt in accidents and exposed to cancer causing asbestos and other harmful substances while cutting and breaking apart ships to recover and recycle the steel content.

Ravi Agarwal from the Basel Action Network in India said "the United States professes to uphold the principle of environmental justice that calls for no peoples be disproportionately victimised by toxic burdens. But this principle apparently only applies within US borders, as developing countries will get these toxic ships and their inevitable pollution and worker health damage simply because we are poor."

If the ships are exported to China or India for example, the decision would very likely be in violation of the Basel Convention's obligations as well as US law.

Under the Basel Convention, ships that are to be disposed and contain hazardous contaminants in harmful amounts are hazardous wastes. Since the US is not a party to the Basel Convention, other countries belonging to the Basel Convention such as India or China, will be forbidden from accepting waste ships from the US without a special bilateral or multilateral agreement that is not less strict than the Basel Convention.

But the export will violate the Toxics Substances Control Act in the US which places a strict prohibition on the export of PCBs in any amount from the US

We want the ships to be decontaminated prior to export. Decontamination is particularly easy in the case of the National Defense Reserve Fleet because the ships are not seaworthy in any case and will need to be towed to any future destination.

We don't want to prevent developing countries from receiving clean raw materials for recycling, but it is unacceptable that poor countries become the toxic waste handlers for the rich. If the export of recyclable steel is really the object then export recyclable steel. Don't export an asbestos and PCB clean-up nightmare.

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.