U.S. Ship poised to dump toxic waste on Bangladesh

A U.S. flagged cargo vessel called “HARRIETTE” was cleared on 1 June by the U.S. Maritime Administration for scrapping on the notorious beaches of Chittagong, Bangladesh with the surprising support of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). In past years, EPA required that older U.S. flagged vessels be tested for toxic polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) prior to being exported to foreign scrap yards, as the export of PCBs violates the U.S. Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA). TSCA has been the only legal means of preventing the toxic dumping of obsolete U.S. ships on Asian beaches, where impoverished workers dismantle ships by hand and suffer from accidental loss of life and occupational disease. Now, EPA seems willing to ignore its obligation to diligently administer TSCA, as directed by Congress, and instead of testing, is allowing ship owners to self-certify that their ships are PCB free -- effectively permitting the possibility of illegal export of toxic PCB waste to the developing world with a see-no-evil policy.

“Self-certification has time and time again proven to be a failed process of regulating industry,” said BAN’s Green Ship Recycling Campaign Director, Colby Self. “Ship owners who routinely maximize profits by dumping hazardous waste ships to be broken down by desperately poor laborers in primitive conditions are the wrong people to police themselves.”

In January 2010, the U.S. Maritime Administration prompted the U.S. EPA to review the HARRIETTE vessel transfer request, as filed by U.S. owner Sealift Inc., to assure compliance with TSCA. MARAD awaited a recommendation from EPA since January; however, EPA declined to review or make a recommendation, completely disregarding their obligations under TSCA. In the recent past, EPA had always required ship owners to test their vessels if there was a likelihood of PCB presence within the ships structural materials. MARAD then authorized the transfer request based solely on self-certifying claims from the ship owner.

EPA’s inaction positions the beneficiary with regulating his own actions, with a favorable determination bringing the owner a reported USD$3.2 million in the case of the HARRIETTE. Another vessel known as the PRINCE WILLIAM SOUND followed a similar path in March, in which the owners netted a reported USD$10 million from ship breakers at Alang, India. This U.S. vessel also was suspected of containing PCBs due to its 1975 year of construction and yet was never required to be tested.

“It appears that the Obama Administration has made a deliberate change in policy to knowingly turn a blind eye to the fate of U.S. flagged ships being scrapped on Asian beaches,” said Mr. Self. “Sadly this is being done even when they know the exports will result in untimely death and disease and are in fact being exported in contravention of U.S. law.”

The HARRIETTE was constructed in Japan between 1976-1978, and due to limited regulations under the Japanese Chemical Substances Control Law [1] at that time, there is high probability that the vessel was built with toxic components, including polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), asbestos, lead and TBT based paints. EPA’s own guidance documents suggest vessels of this vintage (pre-1979) are assumed to contain regulated concentrations of PCBs (equal to or greater than 50 parts per million) unless sampling of all suspected materials prove otherwise.[2] No sampling was conducted on the HARRIETTE nor on the PRINCE WILLIAM SOUND.

Further, the HARRIETTE’s export to the ship breaking beaches of Bangladesh is not only a likely violation of U.S. environmental regulation but also a breach of the United Nations Basel Convention, which prohibits the transboundary movement of hazardous wastes from a non-party, such as the United States, to a member state, such as Bangladesh. The Government of Bangladesh is urged to ban the HARRIETTE from the ship breaking beaches of Chittagong and to uphold the principles of the Basel Convention in the same manner as their recent ban on the vessel called GULF JASH.