Partnership Maritime Review – EU regulation bans breaking on beaches

(Written by Patrizia Heidegger)

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1 January 2014 - On 22 October 2013, the European Parliament voted in favour of the new EU Ship Recycling Regulation. The new law allows ships registered under the flag of an EU Member State to be dismantled only in facilities that meet the requirements set out in the Regulation. The European Commission will now start to list compliant ship recycling facilities that are deemed fit to take in European ships. The Regulation will also demand Inventories of Hazardous Materials (IHMs) for all vessels visiting European ports, a document that identifies and quantifies the amounts of hazardous substances in the structures of the ships. These are welcomed elements that have repeatedly been called for by civil society organisations such as the NGO Shipbreaking Platform and its member organisations in order to improve shipbreaking practices globally.

Furthermore, the new Regulation disqualifies the „beaching“ method, that is, the breaking of end-of-live vessels directly on a beach where workers’ health and safety and the protection of the environment cannot be guaranteed. This method is outlawed in Europe and other major ship recycling countries such as China who are aware of the dangers involved for workers, the local population and the environment.

More in detail, the Regulation prescribes that ship recycling facilities need to operate from built structures and must be capable of preventing adverse effects on human health and the environment including the control of any leakage in particular in the intertidal zone. Moreover, the facilities must to guarantee the containment of all hazardous materials during the entire recycling process as well as the handling of hazardous materials and waste generated during the recycling process only on impermeable floors with effective drainage systems. Last but not least, the Regulation asks for rapid access for emergency response equipment such as fire-fighting equipment and vehicles, ambulances and cranes to the ship and all areas of the facility.

All these elements make it unmistakably clear that the European Commission will not list beaching facilities as compliant with the new EU regulation. In the future, EU-flagged end-of-life vessels can only be legally dismantled in modern ship recycling facilities using methods such as quay-side breaking or dry docks.

The NGO coalition warns however that the new law will fail to change the current state of play if no financial incentive is rapidly introduced to ensure compliance. The Regulation does nothing to prevent ship owners from jumping register to a non-EU flag prior to sending their ships for breaking. Three quarters of European owned vessels broken on the beaches of South Asia in 2012 were registered under non-EU flags such as Panama, Liberia and Bahamas. Less than 10% of the vessels sent for breaking still fly an EU flag. Just as ship owners circumvent the current export prohibition under the European Waste Shipment Regulation by not declaring their intent to dispose the vessel whilst at a European port, it is very likely that more ship owners will circumvent the new EU rules by simply flagging out to non-EU flags at end-of-life, so that they avoid extra costs of using safe and environmentally sound ship recycling facilities. With the new Regulation being a further incentive to flag out, vessels still registered under a flag of an EU Member State at end-of-life may decline even further to a disillusioning number of ships, rendering the impact of the Ship Recycling Regulation non-existent for the purpose of improving ship recycling practices. In fact, the Regulation may even have the unintended effect of shrinking the number of ships registered under an EU flag, and therefore making the Regulation counterproductive to other EU initiatives aimed at building a more robust EU fleet.

Recent independent studies by economists have proposed an array of possible mechanisms to implement the polluter pays principle for end-of-life ships and have clearly shown that a financial incentive for proper ship recycling is legally feasible, enforceable, and necessary. A financial incentive for clean and safe ship recycling that applies to all ships calling at European ports would not discriminate against EU-flagged ships or weaken their position in global competition, but would go beyond the flag system which makes it so easy to circumvent legal requirements.

The new Ship Recycling Regulation asks the Commission to submit a report on the feasibility of a financial instrument that would facilitate safe and sound ship recycling. It further states that in the interest of protecting human health and the environment and having regard to the “polluter pays” principle, the Commission should assess the feasibility of establishing a financial mechanism applicable to all ships calling at Union ports and anchorages, irrespective of the flag they are flying, to generate resources that would facilitate the environmentally sound recycling and treatment of ships without creating an incentive to out-flag. Civil society organisations that promote clean and safe ship recycling demand the rapid development of such a model in order to encourage ship owners to demand higher standards.

Several other elements that can contribute to ensuring a more robust legislative framework are also left open for further development, such as the need to amend the Environmental Crimes Directive (2008/99/EC) to include breaches of the new Regulation and the need to develop adequate technical guidance notes on the requirements for ship recycling facilities and for the certification and auditing of ship recycling facilities outside the EU. To ensure that the Regulation has a positive impact on improving ship recycling practices globally the European Commission needs to make sure that the listed facilities are properly audited and certified to guarantee Environmentally Sound Management (ESM) of hazardous waste, that breaches of the law are sanctioned in line with internationally accepted penalty schemes, and that ship owners do not simply flag out to a non-EU flag prior to selling the vessel for dismantling in an attempt to circumvent EU law.

In 2012, 70% of all end-of-life ships were broken in Bangladesh, Pakistan and India on tidal beaches whose soft sands cannot support crucial safety measures such as heavy lifting or emergency response equipment and which allow pollution to seep directly into the delicate coastal zone environment. No country in the developed world allows ships to be broken on their beaches. While shipbreaking can be done in a safe and clean way with proper technologies and infrastructure, and enforced regulations, most ship owners choose to sell their ships for significantly greater profit to substandard yards operating in countries without adequate resources to provide safeguards and infrastructure to manage the dangerous business. On the South Asian shipbreaking beaches, vulnerable migrant workers, many of them children and adolescent workers, break apart massive and toxic ships by hand, often without shoes, gloves, hard hats or masks to protect their lungs from asbestos, and poison fumes. The International Labour Organization (ILO) considers shipbreaking on beaches to be among the world’s most dangerous jobs.