5 June 2003 – Hope could be on the way for thousands of ship-breakers in Alang, the world’s biggest ship-breaking yard, which has had a miserable record of polluting its environment and putting its workers’ lives in peril.
The ship-breaking yards at Alang have become synonymous with death, disease and despair, says G Ananthapadmanabhan, executive director,Greenpeace India. Seven people were left dead as another ship-breaking explosion rocked Alang on May 19. The abysmal working conditions, the high levels of toxicity, the blatant violation of all rules and regulations have combined to make the workers of ship-breaking yards one of the most vulnerable communities.
This was the fourth major accident in the last two and a half months.
But a significant victory – albeit a small one – heralds hope for Alang. Greenpeace campaigners negotiating with the American/Norwegian shipowner Stolt Nielsen achieved a significant breakthrough on May 23, 2003.
Stolt Nielsen, which has a history of dumping contaminated ships on Indian beaches, after negotiations with Greenpeace in the Port of Rotterdam, has committed to prevent future pollution and health threats associated with the breaking of ships.
This means that demolition of one of the company’s vessels, the Stolt Sincerity, will be done only when the vessel has been properly decontaminated of hazardous substances, like PCBs, asbestos and oil. Stolt Nielsen agreed to study and report back to Greenpeace, and other shipping organisations including the International Maritime Organisation (IMO), Intertanko and ICS, before the end of 2003 about the possibilities to certify its tankers as contaminate-free.
Greenpeace and Stolt Nielsen called upon the IMO and its parties to build on this agreement and adopt mandatory regulations for all shipowners at its upcoming meeting in July 2003.
This breakthrough with Stolt is part of Greenpeace’s one month of intense “toxic patrols” in the port of Rotterdam.
The patrols involved friendly visits by volunteers to ships to inform captains and crews of the environmental and health threats associated with the breaking of ships that have not been decontaminated.
During these patrols it was clear that many captains and crewmembers agree with Greenpeace that owners need to take responsibility for the clean delivery of their ships.
Ananthapadmanabhan said “for the workers of the ship-breaking yards in Alang, this could be seen as a welcome first step towards a safer working environment for their vulnerable community”.
Although discussion of the liability for decontaminating ships before sending them to the yards has been going on for several years, this year, according to Greenpeace, will be “crucial”.
There is commitment at the IMO to have guidelines on ship recycling adopted by the end of this year. Greenpeace will urge the IMO to go for mandatory rules on ships for scrap and oblige owners to clean their ships before exporting them, and ensure that tanks are delivered gas-free for hot work. Until the time that ship owners are held legally responsible for their end-oflife vessels, hazardous old ships will continue to go to the countries where regulation of environmental laws is at its weakest.
Greenpeace officials said they would like to see binding international legislation that will force the shipping industry to deal with hazardous waste in ships. But the proposed moratorium on exporting ships for scrap has seen setbacks – especially with the United States plan to back out of it.