Deutsche Welle – Dangerous Ship Dismantling

(Written by Ana Lehmann)

20 September 2007 - Every year, hundreds of oil tankers, war ships and other large vessels are taken apart — at least two-thirds of them in Bangladesh and India. Many of the ships are from the EU. But the high amount of asbestos and other toxic waste contained in the ships has raised huge concern and the EU is trying to enforce stricter rules.

On the beaches of Chittagong in south Bangladesh, lie hundreds of massive rusty wrecks. Every year, about 30,000 men are employed to dismantle the ships and ocean liners which are no longer needed. The men are barefoot and not wearing protective helmets, masks or gloves. Accidents happen often when bits of steel fall or there are gas explosions.

Moreover, all the workers are subject to poisonous gases which are contained in the ships. The Co-ordinator of the Global Platform on Shipbreaking, Ingvild Jenssen, said:

“End of life vessels which come to the beach today were built about 30 years ago contain large amounts of toxic materials such as heavy metals, oil sludge and asbestos. In India and Bangladesh, where no precautions are taken, these toxics are causing severe harm to human health.”

No safety guidelines

Muhammad Ali Shahin, a Bangladesh-based activist for the Platform on Shibbreaking complained: “Bangladesh is doing a big service to the shipping companies by breaking these old ships and there are no special measures to protect the environment or follow any guidelines.”

He said the dangerous substances should first be removed in Europe before the ships are then dismantled in Bangladesh. But so far, the ship companies have not agreed to this. And there are no laws to force them.

EU ban circumvented

For ten years now, EU law has banned the export of dangerous waste to developing countries. Yet, EU states and ship companies continue to transport mercury, lead, petrol and asbestos-filled tankers to South Asia.

They circumvent the EU ban by only officially deciding to send the ships to India or Bangladesh once they have left European waters. The tiresome procedure is profitable, as Bangladesh not only offers low wages but also pays high amounts for the steel.

“Bangladesh needs iron,” explained Muhammad Ali Shahin, “Bangladesh doesn’t have any iron mines so the shipbreaking is considered a floating iron mine. Bangladesh is getting 80 to 90 percent of its raw iron from these shipbreaking activities, so we say yes to shipbreaking but not to the way it’s going on.”

Cleaner dismantling

Last year, the European Commission started developing a strategy for dismantling ships more cleanly. Various measures were proposed in a “Green Paper on Better Ship Dismantling”.

Thomas Ormond, from the EC’s environment directorate, explained that the main objectives were “to achieve world-wide binding minimum standards on recycling of those ships and to ensure that European ships are dismantled in safe and environmentally-safe facilities world-wide.”

“But, of course, we also need incentives that could be, for instance, technical assistance which development programmes might give to recycling states in order to improve working conditions and set up waste reception facilities,” Ormond reiterated.

More checks

Such facilities do exist in Europe but are apparently not used enough. It’s expected that the EU will soon get more authority to take care that ship transports are better monitored.

A “Green Passport” to go with the ship’s papers would also give a better idea of what substances a ship contains. The European Commission also wants the companies responsible for the toxic waste to pay for its removal.

Until 30 September, member states, ship companies, and other interest groups have the chance to express their views on the matter online. An EU Strategy Paper will take the views and suggestions into account. But it will take time until the 27 EU member states all come to an agreement on the issue.