WISELY, Navy Secretary John H. Dalton has acceded to alarms in Congress about the safety, health and environmental scandal of salvaging the proud ships that maintained the nation's security through the Cold War, by suspending a plan to make it worse.
He has shelved, for the time being, a proposal to deal with deficiencies of fly-by-night operators in U.S. yards by sending the ships to even-worse, more-depraved shipbreaking companies at Alang and other beaches on the Indian subcontinent.
The suspension does not end the scandal. It gives the Navy time to reflect on the best way to break up these proud ships on which hundreds of thousands of American sailors served. It creates the option to do the right thing.
Mr. Dalton was responding to criticisms by Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski and Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., and the intention of Rep. Wayne T. Gilchrest, Eastern Shore Republican, to hold subcommittee hearings. They were reacting to an investigation by Sun reporters Gary Cohn and Will Englund earlier this month.
As the Navy is reduced to meet world and budget realities, as much thought for health and safety should go into salvaging the ships as went into building them. They should be decommissioned with as much care as would be given to the land bases in the next round of base closings the Defense Department seeks.
For untrained and ill-equipped workers to die needlessly, for asbestos and PCBs and other poisons to spew into waters and land, is unnecessary, criminal and harmful to the national interest. Embarrassments at facilities in this country were made vivid by the court conviction of shipbreaker Kerry L. Ellis here in May, for endangering workers and waters in breaking up the USS Coral Sea in Fairfield.
But to sell the ships to shipbreakers in India to wring a little more profit from even lower standards of safety and environmental protection would be no solution. It would make the scandal worse, with less dignity here and more contempt for people in the Third World.
The job can be done efficiently and safely if costs are met, by paying for it or by rigorously policing the job. True, a little money can be saved by doing the job unsafely, just as a little could have been saved by unsafe construction and substandard maintenance. It should be no more thinkable to save federal dollars that way in the breakup than in the building.
Mr. Dalton's action has bought time in which the right decision may be made. The next step should be to make it.
Pub Date: 12/25/97