Shipbreaking issues include invasive species, chemicals
by Joel Gallob, The Newport News-Times
7 December 2005 – By all reports, shipbreaking is done in a more environmentally responsible manner in America than in those South Asian countries where a majority of the ships that are broken are actually taken apart.
Yet there are a number of environmental concerns regarding this industry here in America, as well. These concerns focus upon the materials in the ships including PCBs, the use of anti-fouling chemicals to keep barnacles and other marine organisms off the hulls, and concerns about the transport of invasive species inside or upon the vessels.
Mike Dunavant, the Bay Bridge Enterprise president who proposes to bring to Newport ships from the Ghost Fleet in Suisan Bay (northeast of San Francisco), says there are no PCBs in the vessels.
Jim Puckett, president of the Basel Action Network, based in Seattle, disagreed. "That's crazy," he said, "all the ships from that era - the 1940s, the World War II era, the 1950s - have lots of PCBs in them.
According to the United States Maritime Administration (MARAD) Virtual Office of Acquisition's website description of the Suisan Bay Reserve Fleet, there are 60 old vessels harbored there. Twelve are identified as having been privately owned; the rest are all given as owned by the U.S. Navy, or as having been built for World War II. The youngest ship there, the Willamette, was built in 1980 and owned by the Navy. The next youngest ship, the Cimmaron, was built in 1979 and is owned by the Navy. The third youngest vessel, the Roanoke, another Navy ship, was built in 1974. All the others were built in the 1940s, 1950s or 1960s.
The "Afloat Safety and Occupational Health Manual" can be found on the Virtual Naval Hospital website, maintained by the U.S. Navy. Chapter 24, on Polychlorinated Biphenyls, explains that PCBs were banned in 1979. Before that, it states, PCBs were widely used. It states that "Navy policy is to minimize the exposure to PCBs by substitution with non-PCB containing materials, using engineering and administrative controls and appropriate personal protection equipment."
But, it goes on to state, "insulating fluids within transformers and capacitors may be a source of PCBs aboard ship." Further, "PCB-impregnated felt material was extensively used as acoustical damping material and as ventilation duct gaskets, machinery mount installation and electrical insulation aboard Navy ships. Ventilation duct gaskets should be assumed to contain PCBs. Also, PCBs may be found as a fire retardant in many materials used in construction of Navy ships ... prior to 1979 when the PCBs were banned."
It goes on to list "sound dampening on reduction gears; electrical cable installation; foam hull insulation; rubber banding and sheet rubber for cableways, pipe hanger liners, installation mounts and vent gaskets; packing and grommets electrical cable stuffing boxes; and pipe insulation," as shipboard materials which may contain PCBs.
The manual also states that when working with equipment known or suspected to contain PCBs, all persons must "protect against skin absorption" and "properly dispose of PCB-containing materials."
Of the 60 ships at Siusan Bay, only one, the Willamette, was built after 1979.
Stephen Phillips, from the Ballast Water Program of the Pacific States Marine Fisheries Commission (a tri-state body concerned with coastal fisheries), is tracking the possibility that ships may come from San Francisco to Yaquina Bay - and he is worried they may bring invasive species with them. "They will need to be free of ballast water from San Francisco Bay," he said. "It's a matter of concern. It is something we will follow."
Any vessels that come to Yaquina Bay should, Phillips said, change their ballast water from fresh water to salt water, "at least 50 miles out. The idea is that organisms from freshwater cannot survive the change to salt water through a ballast water exchange. That is the current technique for killing them."
The chief concern is the Chinese mitten crab, so named because it has little hairs on its claws, giving it the appearance, some say, of mittens. The species arrived from Asia in the 1990s, and specifically in San Francisco in the winter of 1992, he said. They may have come in with ballast water, or may have been brought in by smugglers, for sale on the market. In Korea, China and Taiwan, he said, they are treated as food and the eggs, in particular, are sold as a delicacy.
"The worst impact," Phillips said, "is in water engineering projects, such as at the water pumps that move water" from central California to Los Angeles. "In 1998, they collected one million of these crabs at the Tracy, California facility in the Central Valley. They were at the pump plant, a million crabs."
The species migrates upstream and downstream as part of its reproductive cycle, and Phillips said, "they can go as much as 600 miles upstream."
Besides being a danger to waterworks, the mitten crabs may also be a threat to salmonids, he continued. There is some evidence that the crabs will eat eggs and larva of salmon and similar species. While there has been no evidence in the wild of mitten crabs eating salmon eggs or even invading the gravels where the eggs are laid, one laboratory experiment did find the crabs dug into the gravel for salmon eggs. "The Pacific States Marine Fisheries Commission is concerned that the mitten crabs might move north. That would not be good," he said.
However, he added, they are not viewed as a competitor to the Dungeness crab, because their ecological niches generally do not overlap.
And, Phillips noted, the pump clearing project at Tracy, California, did separate out juvenile Sacramento River river-run Chinook, which are listed under the Endangered Species Act, from the crabs. "The crabs fill the screens and tanks where the juvenile Chinook are supposed to be separated out (from the water supply), causing mortality to salmon," he explained. One federal agency, he added, installed screens at the Tracy pump facility to separate out crab juveniles before they would reach the salmon.
"The crabs get chopped up," he said, "and the approach has worked in separating crabs from the fish. But it cost them about $1 million. If something like that were to happen in Oregon, I do not see how we would get rid of them, or stop them from going upstream and down."
One mitten crab was found in the Columbia River in 1998, he continued, and it was probably smuggled in. So far, in this state, that has been the only discovery of the species.
Exchanging ballast water en route between San Francisco and Newport, he said, should take care of the mitten crabs as a potential problem.
There are other potential invasive critters that could hitch a ride on or in the Ghost Fleet if they were brought up from San Francisco. "We are also concerned about some invertebrates; there are some invertebrates that can disrupt an ecosystem," Phillips said. "Some zooplankton could be brought up from San Francisco, and we really don't want them, either."
Such species might be able to out-compete native invertebrates, while native fish might not be able to eat them. Again, the chief response is a ballast water exchange at sea.
Phillips also said he hopes "that steps will be taken to clean the hulls before they come to Oregon. That requires some different procedures than ballast water changing," he added. The goal is to get critters such as barnacles, which can attach to and degrade a ship's hull, to either die or fall off the ship.
Tributylin, or TBT, explained Ian Davidson, the hull-fouling officer at the Oregon Center for Streams and Reservoirs at Portland State University, is being phased out under an international agreement negotiated under the International Maritime Organization. It will cease to be used by 2008. But TBT, the chief chemical used as an anti-foulant, requires movement through the water to be able to work, he said.
"Those ships have been sitting there for a long time," said Davidson. "I would guess we'd have little difficulty finding barnacles there on anything solid to attach to. There are a whole host of organisms that could attach to a ship's hull. There could be dozens (of organisms) on ships, out of potentially hundreds of organisms that could be in that bay."
There is, Davidson said, no perfect anti-fouling substance. In most cases, the substance is going to be toxic, to stop the critters. There are more recently created anti-fouling materials so smooth that barnacles and other organisms can't attach to them. But, like TBT, they're toxic. TBT depends upon tin for its effect; the new anti-foulants mainly use copper, instead.
"If the ship is in dock for six or eight days, it will get fouling organisms on it," said Davidson. "So forty years sitting in the dock, that's huge. Nothing would there would be free from fouling after 40 years, that just won't happen."
So, Davidson was asked by the News-Times, is the situation something of a Catch-22: if an anti-foulant is used, that may be environmentally damaging; but if it is not used, the vessels might bring invasive species up to Oregon.
"That is an either/or situation," he said.
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