Feds Raise Fee Barrier to FOIA about Shipbreaking of US Ship Abroad

February 5, 2014

Maritime historian Jon Ottman has been denied a fee waiver on records he's requested about an aged U.S. Coast Guard cutter that was auctioned to a shipbreaker in Mexico without, he says, being thoroughly checked for toxic and hazardous materials.

The General Services Administration, which auctioned the Storis, wrote that it was denying Ottman's fee-waiver request because he had not demonstrated that it was in the public interest. The Environmental Protection Agency wrote that it had denied the request because Ottman had not responded to its request for a justification.

The 71-year-old Storis served 50 years in the waters of Alaska, where some fans wanted to turn it into a museum. Instead, GSA auctioned it for $70,100 to two individuals who moved it to a shipyard in Ensenada, Mexico, south of San Diego, where its new owners run a metals recycling business.

International treaties and U.S. law on shipbreaking are complex, but the federal government is supposed to ensure its ships are free of toxic and hazardous materials before they are sold off. Requirements were tightened after a Pulitzer-winning 1997 Baltimore Sun exposé of risks to workers in third-world shipbreaking operations.

The GSA filed an inspection report saying the Storis was free of toxic and hazardous materials, but Ottman says it was not done properly. He cites former crew members saying the inspection did not look where asbestos and PCBs would be located.

Ottman has been an advocate for making the Storis a museum and training ship. He wrote the successful application to list the Storis on the National Register of Historic Places.

Ottman appealed fee-waiver denials from EPA and GSA, but both agencies denied his appeals. Ottman has yet to get FOIA fee-waiver rulings from the Maritime Administration and Coast Guard. EPA is reported to be investigating whether hazardous materials were on the ship. The Mexican government is also reported to be looking into that question.