Shipbreaking work should remain in U.S.


IT'S TIME to get moving on the disposal of 100 decrepit retired military ships polluting American rivers. Finally, it appears Congress is gearing up.

A conference committee approved $38 million to continue a pilot program of dismantling these ships in American dry docks. That is where work can be done to take apart these rotting hulks without creating environmental hazards or endangering workers.

The ships are loaded with asbestos, PCBs, lead paint and other toxins. Scrapping them without high standards is unacceptable. Yet for years, Washington put profit before safety. It parceled out shipbreaking to Third World countries where environmental protections and the welfare of workers were ignored.

It took a series of shocking stories in The Sun to get the Clinton administration to halt this practice. But Congress still remained unwilling to spend extra money to have the scrapping done safely at domestic shipyards.

That is changing. Congress more than tripled President Clinton's request for domestic shipbreaking funds. As a result, the pace of work could quicken.

It can't happen fast enough: 37 rusting ghost ships float on Virginia's James River, polluting the waters. Each retired military ship costs taxpayers $900,000 a year to keep afloat.

Why not take that money and recycle it into a shipbreaking program that would safely remove these environmental hazards?

Both Maryland Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski and Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes played key roles in getting this appropriation approved. And with good reason. Baltimore Marine Industries Inc., the Sparrows Point shipyard, could be a prime beneficiary.

It dismantled the USS Patterson last year faster than expected and with no problems. Such a good track record ought to be rewarded.

Reducing the backlog of retired military ships -- many from World War II -- should be put on a fast track. Congress has now taken an important step in that direction.

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