U.S. officials have begun searching the globe for shipyards that would take and break down for disposal the "ghost fleet" -- the toxin-laden, discarded naval vessels now deteriorating on Virginia's James River.

The Bush administration has decided to pursue a resumption of the controversial practice of sending the vessels abroad for dismantling, over the opposition of environmental advocacy groups that support a continuation of a 1998 moratorium on such exports.

A team from the U.S. Maritime Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency was scheduled to depart for Beijing last night to inspect potential sites. Officials also have opened discussions with authorities in Mexico, Scotland and Wales.

Congress has given the Maritime Administration until 2006 to dispose of the surplus ships. There are 71 such vessels in the James, holding nearly 13 million gallons of fuel and oil as well as substantial quantities of cancer-causing PCBs and asbestos. An additional 51 surplus ships float in Suisan Bay, Calif., and nine in Beaumont, Tex., according to the Maritime Administration. Half are more than 50 years old, and many are rusting and prone to leaking. With the risk of pollution mounting, officials in Virginia have been pressing the federal government to remove the ships.

The United States used to routinely export old ships to countries willing to dismantle them cheaply for scrap. Nearly 200 vessels were disposed of in this fashion from 1983 through 1994, according to the General Accounting Office. But disclosures about the unsafe and largely unregulated conditions under which workers in countries such as India and Bangladesh performed the task -- toiling without protective gear for scant pay while suffering alarming rates of injury -- prompted the Clinton administration to impose a moratorium on exports five years ago.

"These deadly wastes such as asbestos and PCBs on board these ships will be dealt with by the poorest workforce on the planet and end up in their back yards, not the back yards of the country that benefited from their use," said Jim Puckett of the Basel Action Network, a Seattle-based environmental group that works to prevent the export of hazardous waste. "It equates to an export of pollution and disease simply because our government wants to save a buck."

Officials declined to confirm the itinerary, but internal government e-mails reviewed by The Washington Post showed that the team of U.S. officials was scheduled to meet tomorrow and Friday in Beijing with counterparts at China's State Environmental Protection Administration, then travel over the weekend to Shanghai to visit several shipyards in the area. Next week, the team was scheduled to visit shipyards near the southern China port of Guangzhou before returning to Washington.

Last month, U.S. officials traveled to Mexico City, where they received "a very favorable response," said Maritime Administration spokeswoman Robyn Boerstling. The officials plan to visit Mexico again soon to examine sites, she said. Officials also visited a shipyard in Scotland last month and are in conversations with representatives from another site in Wales, Boerstling said.

A 2001 study conducted by the Rand Corp. recommended against export as a solution to the environmental threat posed by the ghost fleet, citing legal barriers. In 1994 the EPA ruled that the ships contain enough PCBs to make their export a violation of toxic waste statutes. That ruling would have to be amended or waived by the agency for export to become a legal option.

The Rand study also noted the potential strictures of the Basel Convention, an international agreement aimed at stemming the shipment of hazardous waste. The United States is the only developed country that has not ratified the accord. The study noted that the government instead pursues a combination of "reefing" -- dumping the ships at sea to create artificial reefs -- and domestic recycling.

The Maritime Administration has since concluded that some exports are necessary to contain the costs of disposal, Boerstling said. A private shipyard in Brownsville, Tex., is equipped to recycle old vessels, but the costs are prohibitive, reaching $2.5 million per ship, she said. "This country really doesn't have the capacity to do massive ship-dismantling," she said. "It's not a business people have found profitable."

Asked if cost savings in Mexico or China were the result of an absence of stringent labor safety and environmental protection standards in those countries, Boerstling said, "That is a point." But she added that officials would examine whether sufficient safeguards are in place.

"We're trying to identify places where we are going to go and do some ground-truthing, where we can feel comfortable with these yards and continue monitoring," said Michael C. Carter, director of the maritime agency's office of environmental activities and one of the lead officials on the trip.

China's potential interest in accepting the ships is striking because of the government's recent efforts to ban the import of many varieties of electronic junk from the United States, Europe and Japan. That trade has left entire communities buried under glass, plastic and metal, while elevating levels of cancer-causing heavy metals in water.

Environmental groups maintain that China could not import the junked ships without abrogating its obligations under the Basel Convention. Officials with the environmental administration in Beijing declined to comment on that contention or on their scheduled meetings with the visitors from the United States.

All the shipyards to be visited in China are affiliated with American companies that have filed proposals to take the ships for disposal, according to the Maritime Administration. Boerstling declined to name the companies involved.

Goodman reported from Hong Kong, Weiss from Washington. Special correspondent Wang Ting contributed from Shanghai.

At top, a maintenance boat motors past the discarded ships moored in Virginia's James River. Among them is a WWII transatlantic cable-laying ship, where a maintenance crew worked at coiling a large cable in December.