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Fate of Mothballed Ships Uncertain

October 25, 2004 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 82, Issue 43

Last week, a judge in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia heard opposing arguments about whether mothballed U.S. naval ships should be scrapped in England. The concern is whether these ships fit the legal definition of hazardous waste because they contain polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), lead, mercury, asbestos, and used fuel and oil. Justice Department attorneys argued that the ships simply should be considered scrap metal and therefore exempt from federal hazardous waste regulations for dismantling and recycling. They claimed that the aging fleet, most of which is docked in the James River in Virginia, is essentially scrap metal until the ship-breaking process begins. Only at this point, the attorneys argue, do the ships become hazardous waste. The attorney for Earthjustice, working with the Basel Action Network and the Sierra Club, told the court that under the Toxic Substances Control Act, it is illegal to export PCBs, and under the Resource Conservation & Recovery Act, it is illegal to export hazardous waste unless the receiving facility is properly licensed. Four old naval ships have already been towed to England and lie in legal limbo because the scrapyard there is not permitted to handle toxic substances. Altogether, about 125 ships need to be dismantled. No date has been set for a final ruling.


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