WASHINGTON - The Senate Commerce Committee voted yesterday to order the scrapping of 39 decrepit U.S. ships as soon as possible and to devise a plan to get rid of the rest of the backlog of ships by 2006.
The bill, written by Arizona Sen. John McCain and South Carolina Sen. Ernest F. Hollings, would grant the U.S. Maritime Administration the authority it sought in ridding U.S. waterways of the polluted ships.
The worst of the decaying vessels - 37 of which are in the James River in Virginia - carry PCBs, asbestos, lead-based paint and other toxins. Some date to World War II.
"The committee is saying, 'OK, go ahead and scrap these vessels,'" said Rob Freeman, a policy aide for the Senate Commerce Committee, which is headed by McCain. "We don't want you to scrap any more until we see how you're going to do it."
Notably, the legislation would not require that the ships be sent abroad for scrapping, where they could be sold at a profit. Rep. Herbert H. Bateman, a Virginia Republican, successfully backed legislation in the House that called for the James River ships to be sent abroad.
But for more than a year, lawmakers and maritime officials have held up sales abroad following reports of lax standards at foreign shipyards that have led to environmental hazards and deaths of laborers.
Instead, some in Congress - Sen. Ted Stevens, an Alaska Republican; Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, a Maryland Democrat; and Rep. Peter A. DeFazio, an Oregon Democrat - are pushing for roughly $40 million to be set aside for U.S. shipyards to dismantle the vessels.
The McCain-Hollings bill would give the Maritime Administration the authority to pay U.S. companies to do the work while urging it to see if there are ways to promote greater safeguards abroad.
"It's good for the Maritime Administration, because it allows us the flexibility to go either way," said William Norton, the agency's director of congressional and public affairs. "We believe that there is a domestic capability, and it shouldn't be overlooked."
The legislation calls for a moratorium on scrapping the other ships - some of which have been waiting several decades to be taken apart - until a master plan is completed this year. Cost, environmental safety and labor concerns are to be considered.
Under previous law, the maritime agency had to make a profit and to eliminate the more than 100-ship backlog by September 2001. But that proved impossible after a steep drop in the market value of steel and the increased cost of new regulations at scrapping yards.