28 April 2003

Death is All in a Day's Work

ALANG/ MUMBAI — The Shipbreaking yards at Alang have become synonymous with death, disease and despair, says G. Ananthapadmanabhan, Executive Director, Greenpeace India.

Seven people are dead, six others are injured, and more than 10 people are 'missing' as another shipbreaking explosion rocks Alang on the 19th of May. But as Greenpeace has been reiterating for the past many years, death should be no surprise at Alang. 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 - so much so that death is almost casually treated as another 'occupational hazard.'

The most recent explosion in yard no 5 of Arya Shipbreaking yard on 19th of May involved the ship INVALLE, an oil tanker originally from Belgium. What is more noteworthy, is that this is the fourth major accident in the last two and a half months. Each of these accidents leaves behind several dead, and many others so severely maimed and disfigured that even veteran war-photographers would cringe to see their gory images.

The explosion on the INVALLE was a typical example of shipbreaking accidents, yet particularly ironical. The accident occurred when workers were trying to cut a pipe in the erstwhile engine room. According to one source, this basement-level engine room had one big tank full of oil that caught fire, generating gaseous fumes that resulted in the explosion. This accident proves that the INVALLE (like so many other ships brought to Alang) was not delivered in "Gas free for hot works" condition - even though that is mandatory according to the regulations of the Gujarat Maritime Board (GMB). But even though the ship-owners recover millions of dollars in selling their decrepit vessels to breakers' yards, they do not invest the little amount of money it would take to make their ships "Gas free for hot work".

As with every accident in Alang, the next-of-kin of the dead place the blame on the ship-owners and on the GMB. The GMB seems to have inadequate regulatory systems to monitor the lack of safety procedures in place at the yards. The ship-owners pay no attention to removal of toxic waste from the ships, and transfer their responsibilities to Shipbreaking countries.

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-of-life vessels, hazardous old ships will continue to go to the countries where regulation of environmental laws is at its weakest.

Greenpeace 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.

Towards the end of last year, Greenpeace, BAN, Toxics Link, the National Alliance of People's Movement (NAPM), the All India Trade Union Congress (CITU AITUC, Indian National Trade Union Congress (INTUC) and the Indian Federation of Trade Unions (IFTU) wrote to the Consul of the US in New Delhi, making plain their views about the Bush administration's plan to break out of the moratorium on exporting ships for scrap.

In the letter the organizations said: "We would like to bring to your attention the implications of recent deliberations in the US to dispose of more than 300 ships without decontamination in… Asian shipbreaking yards."

"You may recall that the then US vice president Al Gore placed a moratorium on the sale of US government-owned ships for scrap… after Indian trade unions and environmental organisations protested outside the US embassy in New Delhi in January 1998."

"While we are in no way opposed to the reclamation of steel for reuse… we have repeatedly indicated our opposition to the export to any country… of any form of hazardous waste. Ships for scrap, unless decontaminated, are hazardous waste by virtue of the fact that most, if not all, ships contain a range of hazardous material in their structure."

“Various legal precedents exist to confirm that ships for scrap (unless decontaminated) should be treated as hazardous wastes," said the letter. "Furthermore," it claimed, "such an export is illegal under… international law and would, if exported to India, violate the May 5, 1997, Supreme Court ruling prohibiting the import of hazardous wastes."

"The ships in question are too old… to travel on their own steam. They would need to be towed to the shipbreaking yard. There is no reason why the ships cannot be decontaminated prior to towing to the shipbreaking yard," concluded the authors of the letter.

The astonishing regularity with which fatal accidents occur in Alang, clearly indicate that a strong and mandatory framework must be set up by the IMO to make sure that the same rules apply to every ship for scrap.

Greenpeace is demanding:

1. That all ships brought to the Asian shipbreaking yards be thoroughly decontaminated and be made gas- free for hot works and man entry before arrival.

2. That the International Maritime Organisation develops a strong and mandatory framework to make sure that the same rule apply to all ships and that shipowners are held accountable and liable for their End of Life Vessels and for any hazardous materials they contain.

3. That the Basel Convention be strictly adhered to, and transboundary movement and disposal of hazardous wastes be regulated as per international law.

Source: GreenPeace, Press release – 28 April 2003