AFP – Bangladesh climbdown over toxic ships slammed

(Written by Shafiq Alam)

12 April 2010 – Environmental campaigners Monday branded a move by Bangladesh to relax strict controls on its vital shipbreaking industry as “suicidal,” saying it would expose tens of thousands to toxic waste.

The government amended a law late Sunday to permit the industry, the world’s largest, to bring in ships using their own declarations that the vessels are free from toxic materials, the shipping department said.

Under a government order in January, ships heading for Bangladeshi breaking yards were required to be certified by the selling nation’s environmental authorities.

But the tougher rules hit the industry, which is a major earner in the impoverished nation.

“The previous order has badly affected the shipbreaking industry, which is a vital sector for the economy. We amended it to make sure the industry can keep on growing,” said Bazlur Rahman, shipping department head.

The change will help scores of scrapyards in the southeastern coastal town of Sitakundu, which last year accounted for 30 percent of the vessels dismantled worldwide, said London-based broker Clarkson Research.

Shipbreakers stopped work for nearly a month after the government tightened the environmental rules because none of the ships could get certificates but rights groups hailed it as their “biggest achievement.”

Domestic iron prices shot up by 20 percent as the construction industry is heavily dependent on steel recycled from vessels.

Environmentalists blasted the latest move as “suicidal,” saying the amendment would lead to the pollution of Bangladesh’s coastline and expose tens of thousands of workers to deadly waste such as asbestos.

Mohammad Ali Shaheen, the local head of rights group coalition NGO Platform of Shipbreaking, said the order underlined the weakness of the authorities and lack of commitment to uphold labour and environmental standards.

“It gives shipbreakers a free hand to import ships that contain deadly toxic waste like asbestos, mercury and PCPs. Once again, the government has kowtowed to rogue traders,” he said.