Ship recycler promises jobs, but coastal community decides costs outweigh benefits


NEWPORT, Oregon — On a rainy midwinter weekday, barking sea lions and rubber-booted fishermen outnumber the tourists strolling Newport’s historic waterfront on Yaquina Bay. The crab fleet is in and dogs are waiting in the backs of pickups outside marine supply shops.

Newport is known for its commercial fisheries, which brought in about a third of Oregon’s total catch in 2004 — worth over $30 million — and for its bay-front tourist attractions. It is also home to the Oregon Coast Aquarium and Oregon State University’s Hatfield Marine Science Center.

In January, this coastal community almost became a graveyard for the U.S. government’s "ghost fleet."

Bay Bridge Enterprises LLC, a metals recycling and "shipbreaking" company based in Chesapeake, Va., is looking for a Pacific coast location to dismantle decommissioned military vessels. Sixty of the vessels are now mothballed at a federal Maritime Administration facility at Suisan Bay in California. Ships would be towed up the coast, workers would break them down, and the salvaged metals sold into the lucrative market for high-quality scrap.

According to Newport officials, Bay Bridge would have created about 100 jobs that pay between $10 and $40 an hour plus health and retirement benefits — an attractive prospect in a county where about a quarter of the workforce works in tourism and makes less than $15,000 a year on average. Since jobs in the timber industry began to decline in the 1980s, rural communities along the Oregon and Washington coast have been hurting for blue-collar jobs that pay well.

Oregon’s Economic and Community Development Department worked hard to woo the company. Shipbreaking is a form of recycling, which would seem in keeping with the state’s promotion of environmentally friendly industries. But it is also a notoriously dirty and hazardous business. After strong initial interest, Newport torpedoed the proposal. Questions now abound whether the Suisan Bay ghost fleet will find a final resting place on the West Coast any time soon.

How "green" is shipbreaking?

"Bay Bridge has a good environmental record," says Shannon Russell of the federal Maritime Administration, the agency that awards contracts for dismantling government ships. The Virginia Department of Environmental Quality found no violations during unannounced inspections of Bay Bridge’s Chesapeake facility. The company claims to be one of the nation’s few "green" certified salvage recyclers.

But no government or other third-party entity certifies the environmental soundness of shipbreakers — or any other recyclers, for that matter.

"There is no ‘green’ shipbreaking," says Richard Gutierrez of Basel Action Network, a nonprofit that tracks the global travels of hazardous waste. Ship breakers handle a host of hazardous materials, including asbestos, fuel oils, cyanide, flame retardants, PCBs, and heavy metals such as mercury, cadmium and lead, according to the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).

Ships being dismantled are typically dragged onto land in the process, and continually exposed to weather and harbor water. Leaders of the Hatfield Marine Science Center and the Oregon Aquarium, and others in the community, raised concerns that the coast’s heavy rains could wash toxics into the bay. "We’ve chosen to locate here because we have a pretty pristine bay," says George Boehlert, director of the Science Center, which uses bay water in all of its research labs and aquarium tanks.

Scientists and some in the fishing community also worried that the ghost fleet could introduce invasive species, including mitten crabs and sea squirts, to local waters. John Chapman, a researcher at the Science Center, explains that San Francisco Bay, where these ships are now moored, is a hotbed of invasive species. Some could pose a threat to Yaquina Bay’s crabs, oysters and other marine creatures.

On to the next place

At its Jan. 24 meeting, the Newport Port Commission voted unanimously to reject Bay Bridge’s proposal. Commissioners cited financial considerations, including the cost of dredging the bay to allow for large ships. But ecological concerns played a role, too: Prior to the meeting, one commissioner, who asked not to be named, said, "Whether or not this happens here depends on the environmental safeguards."

With Newport out of the picture, Marc McPherson, Bay Bridge’s West Coast project manager, says the company is shopping for other locations in Washington, the Portland area and elsewhere on the coast. "It’s rare to find a right fit," he says.

McPherson acknowledges that, wherever the company lands next, it will continue to be dogged by ecological concerns. He says Bay Bridge has hired a team from Portland State University to study the potential for spreading exotics. "We want to be a good neighbor," he says. "I don’t want to move in and be the bad guy in town."

Bay Bridge has said that doing business in Oregon or Washington would be less expensive than in California, given that state’s high disposal, labor and business fees. But the company’s initial calculations did not include the cost of surveying for and removing invasive species. And unless ships are dismantled in dry dock (which is expensive), cautions Gutierrez, it’s difficult to isolate toxic materials as they’re being removed.

Coastal communities will have to carefully weigh the costs and benefits of shipbreaking. The Wall Street Journal recently reported that Bay Bridge’s wages in Virginia start at $8.50 an hour — not the $10 an hour officials have promised. And on three of OSHA’s five most recent inspections, the agency recorded a total of a dozen violations, including the exposure of workers to lead. McPherson says the lower-paying jobs are for entry-level, unskilled positions, often held by student workers in summer. The safety violations, he says, occurred at the company’s adjacent metals-processing facility.

Verifying McPherson’s claims is difficult, because little information on Bay Bridge is publicly available. Recently acquired by the Adani Group of India, which is based in Ahmedabad, Bay Bridge has no Web site and is not included in any Adani Group online literature, making due diligence difficult.

"We firmly believe that the U.S. needs to deal with its own waste," says BAN’s Gutierrez, "but we question the wisdom of spreading hazardous pollution when it could be dealt with locally."

The author lives in Portland, Oregon. Her forthcoming book is titled High Tech Trash: Digital Devices, Hidden Toxics and Human Health.