The export agreement requires the Navy to remove the most hazardous PCBs, those in liquid form. Most others, though used in thousands of ship parts, can remain.
Asbestos and other toxic substances are not addressed in the agreement, and the Navy is not required to remove them before exporting ships. The Maritime Administration, which owns a large fleet of obsolete merchant vessels, signed a similar agreement last month.
Joan M. Bondareff, chief counsel for the maritime agency, says it is required to get the highest price possible for its ships; selling them overseas brings far more than selling them at home.
She describes the agreement as a "win-win" for the agency and the environment. "We can continue to export obsolete ships for scrapping and the environment is protected with the removal in the United States of PCBs," she says.
Navy officials declined to be interviewed about overseas scrapping. But in a written statement, the Navy says the agreement "provides an opportunity for the Department of Defense to maximize the return to the U.S. Treasury from such sales."
Sen. John Glenn, an Ohio Democrat, is critical of the export plans.
"While I understand the need for the Navy ... to be able to dispose of surplus craft in an expeditious and cost-effective manner, U.S. jobs and environmental problems should not be exported in the process," Glenn wrote recently to Navy Secretary John H. Dalton.
James Moorman, an environmental lawyer and former assistant U.S. attorney general, agrees.
"The Navy can manage things if they want to -- it appears they're just not interested," says Moorman. "This idea that we ship pollution problems to a Third World country strikes me as a serious mistake. It's the sort of thing our government shouldn't be doing."
Where labor is cheap
It's not surprising that the shipbreaking industry developed in India. Labor is cheap. There's a domestic market for steel. The owners are driven. The workers and their few advocates are powerless. In a Third World nation beset by corruption, poverty and overpopulation, government regulation is ineffectual.
Alang is so remote that few people other than workers or owners ever make their way here. Local officials say the industry, which started in 1983, is only now maturing. While there have been plans for several years to create a development authority to build housing, schools and a hospital, nothing has come of them.
The workers, left to fend for themselves, have nowhere to turn when disabled by illness or accident. Everywhere in Alang are men who are too hurt to work but are hanging on, hoping for a settlement from their bosses.
Sanjay Tatoba, 26, of Mahareshtra, was asked one morning why he was not working. He raised his left hand. Two fingers were missing. "I feel it should not have happened, but who should I direct my anger against?" he says.
Under Indian law, men who are injured and the families of those killed are entitled to compensation from the owner. In practice, they have to prepare themselves for a long wait. Just ask Pradeep K. Thakkar, a robust lawyer who is one of the very few and very lonely advocates for the workers at Alang.
Thakkar represents more than 300 Alang workers or their families before the Labor Court in Bhavnagar. It has just one judge and a backlog of 10,000 cases.
Prospective clients can find Thakkar at his office on lawyers' row in Bhavnagar. They must first climb stairs so steep that a knotted rope is provided to hang onto.
Thakkar is a forceful and unstoppable speaker. He chews betel nuts constantly, which stain his mouth red. He sits by a row of open windows, in a tiny, narrow office, spitting regularly out the window and working despite the constant din of horns, scooters, bicycle bells, cooing pigeons and slamming shutters from the street below. He keeps each case in a worn, folded manila cover, tied with faded red ribbon.
"There is no law," he shouts. "Shipbreakers are exploiting the workers. The government has no role."
A sampling of his clients' cases shows how sluggish the legal system can be. There's Shantaram Sriram Jadav, who fell into the sea while climbing an anchor chain on July 20, 1994. He was presumed drowned. For two years, his widow and four daughters were promised compensation, but got nothing. Finally, they asked Thakkar to sue, seeking $8,500, but they have not been able to raise the $17 filing fee.