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Environmentalists Warn of Illegal Export of Toxic Naval Vessel from Baltimore

Written By Gopal Krishna on Wednesday, November 14, 2007 | 9:13 PM

Ship Loaded with Toxic PCBs and Asbestos Could “Slip Away in the Night”

Baltimore, Maryland/Seattle, Washington, New Delhi: The global toxic trade watchdog organization, Basel Action Network (BAN), has contacted the US Coast Guard and the Environmental Protection Agency, and the Maryland Port Administration to warn that the auction and sale of the old World War II vintage hospital ship now moored at the North Locust Point Marine Terminal, was likely illegal and that the ship may soon be illegally exported by the new owner to the infamous breaking yards of India or Bangladesh.[1]

The 522-foot M/V Sanctuary, built as a US Navy hospital ship in 1944, was auctioned off August 21, 2007 on the Baltimore Court House steps and sold to Nicholas Couchell, of Potomac Navigation Inc. BAN asserts that by the law, the US Maritime Administration (MARAD) was obliged to take the ship back and that the ship is almost certain to be loaded with the toxic compounds polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), which are illegal to export from the United States under the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA). PCBs have been found in high concentrations routinely in the gasketry, cables, flooring and paints of ex-naval vessels of WWII vintage.

The Coast Guard office in Baltimore told BAN that the new owner intends to export the vessel to Greece. However, once the ship is out of US waters it can go anywhere in the world, and it will likely sail in the direction of greatest profit – Bangladesh or India.

“The possible motivation for quick export is clear and the authorities must do everything possible to prevent this outcome. The owner can make a cool couple of million dollars if he sails away tomorrow and dumps it in South Asia, rather then first cleaning and removing the PCBs,” said Jim Puckett of the Basel Action Network. “If they find PCBs he will be forced to spend many thousands of dollars to remediate it before further recycling or refurbishment can be done.”

The ship is already known to contain asbestos, which would threaten the health of shipbreakers in South Asia should the ship end up there. It is admitted by the US that asbestos is present on the vessels and “the transferee is cautioned that asbestos may appear in pipes, ducts, boilers, tanks, reactors, turbines, furnaces or structural members etc., or in holds or compartments of the vessel.” [2]

In 2003, BAN and the Sierra Club sued the EPA and MARAD to stop the export of 13 PCB-laden vessels from the James River ghost fleet to the UK. As a result of that lawsuit, MARAD agreed to utilize the rulemaking process of TSCA should a waiver be needed for future export. No ex-naval vessels have been exported since that time. In this instance, BAN has urgently alerted EPA of the possible illegal M/V Sanctuary export and EPA has reportedly contacted the owner’s attorney and asked for permission to board the ship for an inspection to sample for PCBs. BAN has also alerted the Coast Guard of the need for the ship to be delayed and not granted the go-ahead to sail.

According to the Public Law, it appears that the ship should never have been sold to private parties but should have been conveyed back to MARAD[3]. A non-profit called Life International received the ship in 1989 from MARAD for $10 “and other valuable considerations pursuant to Public Law”[4], in accordance with a special agreement which required return of the ship to the government should Life International no longer need the ship for humanitarian purposes. According to the legal filings of the Port of Maryland, after Project Life (the most recent name of the non-profit, which was set up to use the ship as a drug rehabilitation center) defaulted on their moorage agreement with the port, registered letters to MARAD went unanswered and thus the Maryland Port Administration was forced to deal with it through the courts.[5]

“According to the law, this is a federal ship. It appears it was sold illegally, and the Maritime Administration acted improperly by ignoring its responsibility. Now it must be ensured that the US government does not further aid and abet the ultimate crime of dumping this 522-foot toxic time bomb on developing country beaches,” said Ban Asbestos Network of India.

BAN is calling for the ship to be held pending proper inspection and testing, and for all US ships to be safely and properly dismantled in the US. Since the 2003 BAN and Sierra Club lawsuit, more than 40 ex-naval vessels have been delivered to US owned and operated shipbreaking yards.

For more information contact:
Jim Puckett, Basel Action Network: 1.206.652.5555 (office), 1.206.354.0359 (cell). For information from EPA, contact Kelly Hunter, PCB Coordinator, Toxics Programs and Enforcement Branch at: 215-814-2177 (office) or Peter Gold, State and Congressional Liaison at: (215) 814-5236.
Gopal Krishna, Indian Platform on Ship-breaking/Ban Asbestos Network of India Mb: 9818089660
[1] The world’s attention was brought to bear on the horrific operations in India and elsewhere by the a Pulitzer Prize winning series of articles by the Baltimore Sun in 1998. http://www.pulitzer.org/year/1998/investigative-reporting/works/
[2] According to Appendix B of Contract No. 12459 (MARAD contract with Life International), “the ex-USS Sanctuary (AH-17) may contain hazardous and toxic substances in addition to asbestos.” According to Appendix C, the government asserts that asbestos is present on the vessels and “the transferee is cautioned that asbestos may appear in pipes, ducts, boilers, tanks, reactors, turbines, furnaces or structural members etc., or in holds or compartments of the vessel.”
[3] Public Law 97-360, of the 97th Congress Congress entitled, “An Act to set aside certain surplus vessels for use in the provision of health and other humanitarian Services to developing countries” stipulates as follows: “In the event that LIFE International no longer requires a vessel for the purposes of this Act, that vessel shall be conveyed back to the United States in as good condition as when received, ordinary wear and tear excepted, to the point of original delivery without cost to the United States.”
[4] According to Appendix A of Contract No. 12459 MARAD (contract with Life International), “Bill of Sale”.
[5] According to the Plaintiffs’ Motion for Default Judgment, and Renewed Motion for Interlocutory Sale of the M/V Sanctuary (Page 2, para 2): “After the march 26, 2007 publication of the notice of the vessel arrest and action in the daily record, and the MPA’s April 10 and 12, 2007 mailing of registered, return-receipt letters to three judgment creditors of Project Life, and to the Maryland Historical Trust and the Maritime Administration notifying them of the vessel arrest action, and enclosing a copy of the daily record notice, no statements of interest or motions to intervene were filed with the court.”
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