A noble fleet dying in shame Shipbreaking scandal: Workers killed, waters poisoned on Navy ship sales.

THE USS CORAL SEA -- the "Ageless Warrior" -- steamed at 33 knots to Cold War trouble spots for 42 years, carrying planes, nuclear capability, 4,000 crewmen and the hopes, pride and fears of the superpower whose security it maintained.

Now it's junk at the former Maryland Shipbuilding and Drydock yard in Fairfield, dying in ignominy and scandal. The Seawitch Salvage company chief who took on the largest shipbreaking and salvage project in American history now stands convicted of forcing his men to breathe asbestos and dumping oil and filth in the Patapsco.


But the worst of this outrage is elsewhere. In Brownsville, Texas, ships are broken for salvage by lowly paid immigrants desperate to support their families, untrained and ill-equipped. Some of them die at the job. At Terminal Island, Calif., workers were ordered to lie to federal safety investigators about the asbestos they handled.

This is the scandal that Sun reporters Will Englund and Gary Cohn pursued. Their articles, beginning today on the front page of the newspaper, tell of the mighty U.S. government entrusting its business to fly-by-night operators who were shut down in one state and popped up in another, convicted felons and shady businessmen who jeopardize the lives of their workers and litter American harbors with asbestos, PCBs and still more poisons.


All this because Congress in budgeting and the Defense Department in implementation have designated 111 more proud U.S. Navy ships for breakup by the Defense Reutilization and Marketing Service of the Navy, which is more comfortable selling old blankets to surplus stores. It recovers the most money -- with apparently few questions asked -- by selling the pride of the fleet to shady operators, who increase their profits by cheating on worker safety and public health.

Yes, it would cost the nation more to do this necessary job with respect for the ships on which countless American sailors served, with concern for the workers who risk their lives doing it and with vigilance for the health and safety of American citizens nearby.

But a Congress that wastes billions on weapons the Pentagon doesn't want, a Defense Department that accepted featherbedding in contracts to build the things and a naval bureaucracy that goes for a penny saved, don't seem to want to know.

A great ship of the Navy should be decommissioned with the care for its memory and respect for the present day that would be shown to a military installation in the next round of base closings that the Pentagon seeks. The scandal is the responsibility of the Navy, the Defense Department, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the administration and Congress -- each of whom must be held accountable for its culpability.

Pub Date: 12/07/97