Activists blast USA plans to resume export of obselete, toxic naval vessels to developing countries

Press release - 11 December, 2002

The Basel Action Network (BAN), Greenpeace International, Toxics Link of India and a coalition of Trade Unions have discovered that Congress and the Bush Administration has reversed a moratorium against toxic waste ship dumping and has, within the Defense Authorization Act, set aside 20,000,000 US$ that can be used for a pilot project in 2003 that will involve the export of up to 4 vessels from the rusting National Defense Reserve Fleet as well as the sinking of ships at sea for artificial reefs. If the pilot is seen as acceptable, the total number of ships that could be exported abroad by the US would be around 300-400 in the next few years.

The ships, now under the jurisdiction of the Maritime Administration (MARAD) are known to contain significant quantities of hazardous asbestos and polychlorinated biphenyls PCBs.

In the past US ships have gone to India. But MARAD 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 due to concerns about human health and the environment in ship scrapping nations. The governments concern followed activist campaigns as well as journalistic revelations spotlighting the horrific conditions found in Asian shipyards where 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.

"The United States professes to uphold the principle of environmental justice that calls for no peoples be disproportionately victimised by toxic burdens," said Ravi Agarwal of BAN in India. 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 to United States law. Under the Basel Convention, ships that are to be disposed and contain hazardous contaminants in harmful amounts are hazardous wastes.

As the United States is not a Party to the Basel Convention, countries belonging to the Basel Convention such as India or China, will be forbidden from trading waste ships with the United States without a special bilateral or multilateral agreement that is not less stringent than the Basel Convention.

Further, the export will violate the Toxics Substances Control Act in the United States which places a strict prohibition on the export of PCBs in any amount from the United States.

The environmental and trade union organizations are demanding that the

ships be decontaminated prior to export. Decontamination is particularly easy in the case of the NDRF because the ships are not seaworthy in any case and will need to be towed to any future destination.

"The US ships contain dangerous toxic substances of which the export is not allowed. We are not trying to prevent developing countries from receiving clean raw materials for recycling" said Marietta Harjono of Greenpeace. However 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."