Tradewinds – Scrapping must prove progress as public grows green

(Written by Bob Hurst)

10 April 2013 - People power meant pollution topped the agenda when the country’s newest shipbreaking outfit sought the green light. Bob Rust reports

Last year it took on several domestic Chinese ships for scrapping, such as the 64,000-dwt panamax bulker Ming Zhou 28 (built 1984), but it cannot go to work on the scale for which it was intended until local and national environmental authorities certify it.

With 230,000 square metres of space, twin scrapping drydocks of 200 metres by 50 metres, twin shipbreaking basins of 250 metres by 70 metres and 250 metres by 50 metres, a shipbreaking platform of 250 metres by 29 metres, plus full storage space and equipment for ship materials and waste, the yard represents a start-up investment of perhaps $161m and an employment boost for the local economy.

But the project met heavy opposition from residents and some local officials, who were only brought around by a public-relations campaign to demonstrate advances in clean demolition technology.

The reason for the scepticism lies partly in the awakened environmental consciousness of the Chinese public and partly in the industrial history of Zhejiang province’s Zhoushan archipelago, of which Daishan Island is a part. Not many years ago the coastal province south of Shanghai was a major centre for Chinese shipbreaking, in the days when Chinese shipbreaking was done not in dry docks but on beaches as in South Asia.

The resultant coastal pollution is still within living memory and when the Hongying project first became known it raised an outcry.

“Thirty years ago, [the Zhoushan area] was the biggest recycling area in China, but now only three facilities exist there. When a new project was being planned, there was a big debate in the local government,” said China National Shiprecycling Association (CNSA) president Xie Dehua. “They wanted to save local jobs, but there was also a new set of concerns about the environment and how to dispose of hazardous materials.”

Local authorities were asked by the Hongying operators to fly Xie in to quiz him on envirionmental standards in modern shiprecycling. After a round of public and private meetings, television appearances and newspaper interviews in which Xie made the case that shipbreaking can be “green”, local opinion was swayed — at least enough that the project could proceed.

Local opinion was not much consulted by central planners when China built industrial facilities a few decades back. But today the “not in my backyard” (Nimby) attitude that stops industrial projects in Europe and North America is a factor in China too.

Focus of public dissatisfaction

The Chinese public outcry against industrial pollution is widely seen as a focus of public dissatisfaction with government, even more than political corruption. China’s new Xi Jinping-Li Keqiang government has made it a point to call for reform on both fronts. Chinese state-controlled news coverage nowadays frequently features prominent environmental stories, from the choking smog of the Beijing region to the thousands of dead pigs floating down the Huangpu River at Shanghai to angry locals demanding that Party officials be required to drink tap water.

Shipbreaking is still resisted in some places, such as Ningbo, the industrial and port city on the mainland opposite Zhoushan, which does not permit shipbreaking despite the boost it may offer to local labour.