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Ships sail to scrap yards via legal loophole

Three US agencies cannot agree on who has oversight on scrapping ships filled with toxic materials.

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Today at least 189 oceangoing vessels of all types, 25 years old or older, fly the US flag. Ships of that vintage – from tankers to container ships – typically contain tons of asbestos, PCBs, and other toxic chemicals, far above US regulatory maximums. Where these ships go to be recycled will depend, however, on how well US regulators coordinate with one another in order to enforce existing laws restricting PCB exports.

If federal agencies talked more with one another, "a cleaner environ­ment and a more robust US ship scrapping industry" might result, says John Graykowski, a for­mer acting administrator at the US Maritime Administration (MARAD) who now works with US-based ship-recycling companies. While the US industry is bound by strict environmental regulations, "ship breakers" abroad, most notably those in South Asia, are notoriously lax – and dangerous, too.

"Why not just require that, before a ship can be reflagged for overseas scrapping, the owner must seek a US-based company's bid first?" Mr. Graykowski asks. "If no US company is available or willing, then by all means consider going overseas" if appropriate safety and environmental concerns are met.

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