DVZ – Struggle for rules against dirty deals

(Written by Robert Sedlak – translated from German)

22 September 2011  – The journey of ocean ships: mismanagement in the EU ship scrapping rules

After years of negociations on an international level, the conditions under which ships are scrapped remain desastrous. The EU now wants to come forward with a set of rules before the end of the year. Its content as much as the form it should take are causing a heated debate behind the scenes.

Five years ago, about 500 tons of hazardous toxic waste were illegally dumped in landfills close to Abidjan, the largest city in the Ivory Coast. The ship transported a dangerous cargo at the time, and she is today again provoking panic: she is on its way to Bangladesh, where she is to be scrapped under catastrophic conditions for the environment and workers.

This was reported by the “Shipbreaking Platform “, a network of NGOs. Every year, several hundred large ships reach the end of their lifecycle worldwide - the EU Commission speaks of 200 to 600, the “Shipbreaking Platform” says it’s even up to 800 ships, and their number is rising. The transitional period for using single-hulled tankers is now up and these ships need to be demolished. It is in general a surplus of old freighters, due to the high workload in recent years, which were in operation longer than planned and are now being decommissioned.

These large ocean liners will be sent to the beaches of South Asia for scrapping, using the so-called “beaching” method. This means that the ships arrive at high tide on the coasts of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, where they are beached. At low tide, they are taken apart.

This industry helps an important number of cheap migrant workers to make a living, but under dramatically bad conditions: the risk of accidents is extremely high, as are health hazards. Dangerous substances like asbestos, oils or tribultyn are not only endangering workers, but also polluting the coastal areas. Alternative demolition methods in dry docks are given little chance due to their higher costs.

Rules under work

The issue has been at the centre of international negociations for quite some time. In 1992, the Basel Convention on the cross-border movement and disposal of hazardous waste came into force internationally. It also applies to ships as they carry and contain dangerous waste. The EU ratified a regulation on waste shipments (the “Waste Shipment Regulation”) which was transposed into EU law. It prohibits hazardous waste – like shipwrecks – to be sent from OECD countries to non-OECD countries. But it has barely any control on the issue.

The International Maritime Organisation’s (IMO) Hong Kong Convention, brought forward in 2009, should have more teeth. “The convention states that hazardous materials found aboard ships should be accurately documented”, said Max Johns, spokesperon of the Association of German Shipowners (VDR). This way the shipbreaking yard owner knows what he should dispose of.

A European responsibility

In 2006 Europe was latched into the process, when the then-Greek Environment Commissioner Stavros Dimas made the important statement that Europe carries a big responsibility as many vessels sail under EU flags. The speech was followed by numerous documents, a Green Paper and debates at the European Parliament. The new Environment Commissioner Janez Potocnik declared in the spring of 2011 that the Commission was in favor of enforcing the Hong Kong Convention at an EU level.

Several scenarios are on the negotiating table. The EU Commission wants to present a concrete proposal for an EU regulation before the end of the year. That is what the DG Environment presented through its roadmap. But, the Brussels authorities’ stated plans have provoked very different reactions.

According to Ingvild Jenssen of the “NGO Shipbreaking Platform”, it does not go far enough. “The EU will probably just transpose the Hong Kong Convention into EU law”, she said, disappointed. The problem would not be solved. A central point of criticism is that ships are frequently “flagged out” so that Europe’s responsibility is pushed aside. Jenssen says it’s necessary to put the focus on the owner of the ship, for example through the system of a fund, whereby economic incentives will force owners to act ecologically. “The European Parliament is on our side”, says a confident Jenssen. “Even if the Commission proposes the mere transposition of the Hong Kong Convention, the Parliamentarians can protest with complementary measures.”

However the VDR maintains that EU action is pointless. “When you want to make something international it’s only at the level of IMO, not in Brussels”, said Johns. He compares the situation with the car market. The new cars driven in Germany can be, ater several years, sold in other countries where they remain in operation for 10 to 15 years. Separate EU rules are therefore necessary. On the same grounds, Johns said that the idea of a fund would be no good. It is not possible for the first tenant of an apartment to only get back his security deposit if the following tenant leaves the apartment clean.

“Fund solutions are usually only crutches”, said a skeptical Uwe Jenisch, Professor of International Law at  the University of Kiel. But the EU can carry some weight to the negociations with the IMO. The 27 Member States of the EU represent 30 to 40 percent of the world’s tonnage. “If the EU supports the Hong Kong Convention it can also exert pressure on the other states”, said Jenisch.

Push through port inspections

According to the Hong Kong Convention a certificate will need to show what susbtances are present onboard a ship. It will be presented when the ship is controlled in the EU ports. If these provisions are not respected, there will be fines or reprimands from the ports. These inspections by the port authorities are the alpha and omega of the Convention, argued Jenisch. “A shipowner from a third country will consider in the future whether his ship will be received negatively in Rotterdam”, said a confident Jenisch.

But even if all countries ratify the Hong Kong Convention, the “beaching” practice will still be possible. It also remains unclear as to what IMO rules will ensure that recycling processes are controlled.

A clear division of roles

According to Jenisch, Europe has a clear role to play anyway: Brussels  should focus on consistency, high quality and strict implementation and control of the rules
guaranteed on its territory. From Portugal from Scandinavia there will be enough work to do.

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