OUT OF sight and out of mind would be the way this nation treats its fleet of aging, contaminated government ships if the U.S. House gets its way. Given the sordid record of foreign ship breakers, as documented in The Sun's 1997 Pulitzer Prize winning series, this is an indefensible policy.
Proponents of sending these ships abroad argue the nation cannot wait any longer to begin disposing of its large fleet of mothballed government ships.
Many, moored in waterways such as the James River and San Francisco Bay, have severely rusted hulls and are barely able to float. They all contain toxic materials -- asbestos, PCBs and the like. More than 150 should be scrapped by the end of 2001, according to Transportation Department's inspector general.
But by voting to require the Maritime Administration to send these vessels abroad for scrapping, the House has placed profits paramount among the issues here. That is shortsighted and dangerous.
It's immoral to export these contaminated vessels knowing full well that the foreign shipbreakers will carelessly discard hazardous materials. And even from a self-interested perspective, toxins that leach into the soil or water could find their way into food and other products we import from these countries.
As an alternative, the inspector general recommends removing the congressional mandate that ship scrapping yield profits and further suggests paying U.S. contractors to scrap the 40 "worst" ships immediately. That's a good idea.
As Sen. Barbara Mikulski has pointed out, American shipyards are capable of taking apart ships as well as putting them together. With her help, $38 million has been set aside to pay U.S. shipyards to disassemble former Navy vessels.
Baltimore Marine Industries has nearly completed the scrapping of the USS Patterson, a Navy frigate. The job was done without damaging the environment or injuring workers. There is no reason to export this work when it can be done here with greater safety.