Environmental Rules Don't Apply to the Federal Government
It's amazing what a person can discover if one is willing to submit a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request and wait two years for the federal government to respond. Treasures include General Services Administration (GSA) employees admitting to withholding environmentally sensitive information from buyers of government property. You can also find U.S. Coast Guard (USCG) employees failing to comply with Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) standards. The transgressions are so plentiful that one is left to question if it's possible to find federal agencies following the laws that govern everyone else.
The GSA/USCG emails I'm referring to came to light when a New York Times reporter and Jon Ottman, a maritime historian, FOIAed the agency for information about the June 2013 auction of the former Coast Guard Cutter Storis. Ottman wanted to know why GSA auctioned the vessel off for scrapping in Mexico when an organization he represented had applied to turn her into a museum.
On August 20, GSA released a 250 page file containing emails and USCG documents (some already in the public domain) regarding the disposal of the vessel. One of the documents was a December 2006 USCG environmental assessment for the decommissioning and excessing of the Storis. According to this document, the Storis contained "concentrations of PCBs in excess of specified levels allowed for distribution in commerce." PCBs, also known as polychlorinated biphenyls, are toxins that are highly dangerous to everything from fish to birds to human beings and for that reason, are heavily regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency.
Additional documentation regarding the PCB material can also be found in a May 2007 Coast Guard report entitled "Specifications for the Lay Up Preparations of the USCGC Storis." Ottman received this document per the FOIA process, and the document states in the Known Hazards section that “the Coast Guard has reason to believe that PCBs may be found, though not exclusively,” in two types of material used extensively throughout the vessel. Lastly, the document mandates USCG compliance with the Toxic Substances Control Act when disposing of the PCBs.
But then one looks at the GSA pre-auction information and there is no reference to PCBs aboard the Storis. Potential bidders were told only that they were responsible for any requirements to clean her hull for compliance with the Non-indigenous Species Act and that the property was not warranted.
Ottman knew in October 2013 that the GSA information was flawed, and he tried his best to stop the vessel's departure. Based upon information from former crewmen, Ottman questioned the EPA Region IX PCB coordinator as to whether the Storis contained toxins. The EPA then asked the USCG for documentation and the USCG sent them a January 17, 2007 two paragraph memo stating, “Please be advised that the CGC Storis is free of PCBs. All material that is above 50 ppm and not defined as totally enclosed are considered PCB containing for regulatory purposes.”
Attached to the USCG memo was a November 15, 2000, four page hazmat survey that included 38 PCB samples of materials including seat cushions, mats and the CPO’s urinal drain line. Nowhere on that list is the electrical cable that was highlighted in the 2007 USCG report. The EPA requires domestic metal recycling companies to test this material, but the Coast Guard never did and as a result, its remediation efforts were flawed. Agency personnel only spent four and half hours in January 2007 removing 20 feet of pipe insulation instead of addressing the PCB, lead and asbestos that were identified in the May 2007 report.
In addition to not testing the proper materials, the USCG never shared the 2006 and 2007 reports highlighting the PCBs with the EPA. Domestic ship recycling companies are required to share this information, but they didn't. The EPA's sign-off therefore was based on flawed information, and the Storis sailed off to dump its PCBs (and asbestos, mercury, lead, etc.) in Mexico.
It's important to note that federal law prohibits the export of PCBs unless EPA grants a waiver. In addition, federal law requires the government to notify the receiving nation that U.S. PCBs are being exported to it. EPA didn't grant the new owner a waiver to export the PCBs. Similarly, it never notified Mexico that the vessel was going to be scrapped in Mexico.
On November 5, 2013, after the USCG received several media and Congressional inquiries, the USCG reminded GSA that it had shared information with them regarding hazardous material aboard the vessel. GSA's response made me fall of my chair and shout whiskey, tango, foxtrot. "GSA did not provide the buyer with copies of the HAZMAT reports." In addition, "We (GSA) never provide the successful bidder a copy of the Hazmat Documentation." Our government is selling potentially hazardous items to unsuspecting buyers and the only warning that they give them is that the property isn't warranted.
Sadly, more eye-brow raising details will likely emerge in the next couple of months concerning the demise of the Storis. It's been almost two year since Ottman FOIAed the EPA, Maritime Administration and Coast Guard for information concerning the vessel. None of them have been forthcoming with substantive details leading one to question what more they are hiding.
K. Denise Rucker Krepp, domestic ship recycling advocate, former Maritime Administration Chief Counsel and Coast Guard officer
The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.