(Written by Robert McGowan)
14 November 2003 -The row over the US Navy “ghost ships” sent for breaking in England overlooks the fact that many of the world’s redundant vessels are now taken apart on Asian beaches with little or no regard for the environment or the health of workers.
Able UK, the Tees company set to recycle the American ships, says it has the expertise and the facilities to dismantle the metal hulks cleanly and safely.
Contrast this with one beach black with pollution at Alang in India where 35,000 men take to pieces the world’s ships with little more then their bare hands for two US dollars day.
They are exposed to a cocktail of pollutants, from PCBs to asbestos, oil and lead.
Deaths or crippling accidents are regular occurrences: on 25 February this year, 10 workers at Alang were confirmed dead and five injured in an explosion as they cut into the steel hull of the Amina, an oil tanker owned by the Greek firm Chandris.
Over 300 ships a year are now being processed at Alang, which has demolished over 2,000 ships since its inception in the early 1980s.
The market for scrap ships is growing rapidly, following the phasing out of single-hulled tankers after a series of disastrous spillages.
Until the 1970s, ship-breaking was concentrated in industrialised countries.
Performed in proper docks, it was a highly mechanised operation. But the costs of upholding environmental, health and safety standards increased, so the shipping industry moved to poorer Asian states.
The recent introduction of environmental and safety laws in China – once the major breaking nation – has made the industry unprofitable there, too – and the race is on to find countries where occupational health and safety standards are not enforced.
“Ship-owners and fleet-owning countries do little to fulfil their obligations towards environmentally sound ship-breaking, and instead export their liabilities to the ship-breaking nations,” said Greenpeace campaigner Ramapati Kumar.
“Shipping companies earn more than a billion US dollars from selling scrap vessels every year but do not spend a penny on protecting people’s health and the environment by cleaning their vessels of hazardous waste and oil residues.
“If they would do that, hundreds of lives would be saved.”
Greenpeace has repeatedly called on the International Maritime Organisation (IMO) to force ship-owners to clean up ships before sending them to Asia.
Environmentalists have hailed the recent decision of the Basel Convention that end-of-life ships are officially recognised as being waste, which they say is the first step in drawing up a legal framework that will eventually force ship-owners to take responsibility for disposing of toxic substances.