The Maritime Executive – Embarrassment for Shipowners, Not Law Enforcers

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13 June 2014 - Op-Ed by Patrizia Heidegger

(Editor’s note: Patrizia Heidegger is Executive Director of the NGO Shipbreaking Platform. This article is a response to Dr. Nikos Mikelis’ June 5th op-ed in this newsletter titled “Cash Buyer Speaks Out on Shipbreaking Allegations.”)

On the 6th of June the Global Spirit, a Japanese-owned car carrier, was arrested in the port of Antwerp, Belgium. The NGO Shipbreaking Platform, a global coalition of environmental and human rights organizations promoting clean and safe ship recycling, had informed the Belgian environmental authorities that the ship, which belongs to Mitsui O.S.K. Lines Limited (MOL) and Nissan Car Carriers (NCC), had been reported sold for demolition to a shipbreaking yard in India.

Having examined our alert, the Belgian authorities contacted the owners to find out where the Global Spirit was heading, and the owners confirmed the sale of the ship to an Indian breaker. Consequently, the Belgian authorities decided to prevent the imminent illegal export of the end-of-life vessel to a developing country by arresting it.

We are glad to learn that the shipowner is now seeking a legal solution to recycle the ship in a modern recycling facility located off the beach. As one of the world’s leading ship-owners that prides itself on progressive environmental objectives, MOL should now develop a best practice ship-recycling policy for its entire fleet and only choose recycling yards that guarantee the highest environmental and safety standards.

In the case of the Global Spirit, it is of particular interest that Norwegian Höegh Autoliners, a company that already implements a stringent policy to only use modern ship-recycling facilities off the beach, holds a 20 percent share in Nissan Car Carriers.

We have been following with interest the discussion surrounding this case and were surprised to read the comments of cash buyer Dr. Nikos Mikelis in an article published in this newsletter on June 6. Dr. Mikelis questioned whether the departure of the Global Spirit from Belgium indeed amounted to a breach of the European Waste Shipment Regulation (WSR). The case was, however, clear-cut as the owner himself had declared his intention to sell the ship for demolition in India.

Even if the ship was still bound for port calls in West Africa, the European Commission and the Belgian authorities agreed with us that the ship had to also be considered as waste. It therefore falls under the WSR, and the authorities took precautionary measures to prevent a breach of the law. Exporting toxic wastes, such as asbestos, heavy metals and residue oils – also when found within the structure of ships – to a developing country is forbidden. The shipping industry is not above the law.

Dr. Mikelis also claims that “Most of the few attempts that have been made over the years to enforce the Waste Shipment Regulation to end-of-life ships have ended costing money to the European taxpayer and embarrassment to the relevant administration.” Highlighting such individual cases in order to raise awareness about a global problem – the fact that most end-of-life vessels wind up in substandard facilities on tidal beaches in South Asia rather than in modern ship-recycling facilities and most shipowners do not accept responsibility for the harm caused by actions – is not an embarrassment to law enforcers but only for the concerned shipowner, whose bad practices are exposed.

And the taxpayer money necessary to keep environmental authorities busy enforcing European waste law on a scrap ship is well invested if this leads to a global company’s changing its practices – and negligible compared to the environmental and human costs that substandard shipbreaking has caused and continues to cause in developing countries. At least six shipbreaking workers have died under falling steel plates in Indian yards this year, and 16 Bangladeshi workers have perished in explosions, fires and other accidents since January.

If more and more shipowners demand clean and safe recycling – including MOL, to whom we have reached out – this will lead to the necessary changes that we all want to see. The demand can create the supply.

Last but not least, we agree with Dr. Mikelis that the global shipbreaking crisis would best be governed by an effective international regulation. However, such a regulatory regime should put the primary responsibility for clean and safe recycling on shipowners, the ones who have benefited financially from a ship, and not wait for the recyclers to meet safety and environmental standards in a market where irresponsible shipowners look to make the highest possible profit from their end-of-life vessels.

We should applaud the Antwerp decision instead of ridiculing law enforcement agencies that are simply doing their job. Every shipowner who decides to change his corporate practice for the better and reduce his profits for the sake of people and the environment will drive the shipbreaking industry toward cleaner and safer recycling methods. – MarEx