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A National Treasure | SS United States (Philadelphia, PA)

A National Treasure | SS United States (Philadelphia, PA) - SS United States
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Ship breaking—the process of tearing a vessel apart to reuse the components it is comprised of—is not a new process; for decades, the grandest of passenger liners and the lowliest of tugboats have been scrapped when their usefulness becomes less than the value of the parts they are made of or the cost of repairing them. Even liners like the mighty Leviathan, one of the largest and most opulent ships of its time, became outmoded and was sent to the breakers—in that particular case, the Leviathan was doomed when the nation’s economy slowed by the very scale that initially made it attractive to passengers. It used to be that ship breaking took place on American soil at facilities like Sparrow’s Point in Maryland, but as environmental regulations advanced, the extremely toxic byproducts that were left behind became more and more expensive to responsibly manage. It was not uncommon for large quantities of asbestos, PCB’s, lead, mercury, and other pollutants to be dumped in the water and soil at ship breaking facilities, with predictably catastrophic effects on the surrounding environment. The safety of the workers was always an issue also — safer practices that limited worker exposure to toxins and helped prevent the injuries and deaths that accompanied such large scale operations were time consuming and expensive. Like many industries, the large ship breaking corporations chose not to follow technology and popular sentiment in the direction of safety and good stewardship. Instead, they closed facilities in the United States and Britain and set up shop in impoverished third-world nations, places where environmental laws were lax or nonexistent and worker safety wouldn’t be an issue because the value of the lives of the indigenous populations was already so low. Officials and rulers could be bought for much less than the cost of implementing new procedures, and would happily sell out their land and population for the money and business the companies would bring.

Even countries like china have moved away from the ship breaking industry due to the hazards and environmental impact within the last two decades (which says quite a bit about how toxic it is), and nations like great Britain haven’t salvaged ships on their own soil for more than two decades. As such, the largest ship breaking operations now take place in Pakistan, Bangladesh, and India. Destroyers, cargo ships, liners, tankers, and many others are stripped by impoverished workers with little or no protective equipment in temperatures in excess of 100 degrees, with dangers such as radiation exposure, heavy metal poisoning, explosions from compressed gases, inhalation of toxic fumes, accidents including sawing equipment, falling, electrocution, and many others.

Rather than working in a shipyard where risks could be managed better, the high tides are used to heave the ships onto the beaches where workers scuttle over them like ants, cutting bits of them away and dropping them to the sand far below where they are removed for scrapping. Given that many ships only have a lifespan of approximately 25 years, the turnover at such sites can be immense. In Alang, India, currently one of the most prominent ship breaking sites in the world, over 300 ships are processed a year— 2,000 since the 1980s– by an estimated 40,000 workers. the once-pristine beaches are now heavily polluted garbage heaps littered with tiny iron splinters that frequently lodge themselves in the bare feet of the untrained workers. Any injuries that impede an individual’s ability to work results in the loss of their job. There is no legislation covering worker’s rights, safety, testing of equipment, or disposal procedures for toxic waste. Medical facilities are hours away, and records are not kept of workers’ identities to notify their families in case of injury or death.

While there have been assurances that the SS United States will not be sent to the breakers, as the years pass the likelihood only increases. It costs Norwegian Cruise Lines thousands of dollars a year simply to moor her at the Philadelphia Port authority’s dock, and the possibility that she will be capable of being made seaworthy again is remote. While structurally she is in fine condition, her engines are old and have not been run for so long that it would be nearly impossible to return them to operational status. Even if they were, the amount of fuel they consume is much greater than comparable ships of her own day, let alone ours. As such her engines would probably need to be replaced. There are many people who are passionately devoted to her preservation who would like to see her turned into a floating museum that would display artifacts from the era of the great cruise liners, though, which would not require engine work at all. While this seems to be the most practical plan for saving her, the initial financial investment that would be required is substantial, to say the least.

Nevertheless, she is a national treasure. If we are too lazy and indifferent to make the effort required to preserve her and she is torn apart on some foreign beach by exploited and impoverished workers, the statement that makes about us as a nation is profound. In so many ways the SS United States is a metaphor for the country she was named after. I hope we will save her, and that children for decades to come will be able to look on her with the same awe and wonder that I did and take pride in their country and their ancestors. We owe it to our past and future generations, to our country, to ourselves.

If you'd like to learn more about Philadelphia's lost ship the SS United States, it is a featured chapter in the new Abandoned America book Abandoned America: Dismantling the Dream, available on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and many other online booksellers across the globe. Signed copies are available here. Photographs and unattributed text by Matthew Christopher.

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