30 January 2006

HIV looms over Indian shipbreaking yards:

Long separation from the family, pathetic working conditions in shipbreaking and recycling yards and comparatively good money are prompting the large population of migrant workers in Alang, Gujarat, to go to sex workers and thereby increase the risk of contracting HIV infection.

This necklace shaped shipbreaking yard, located on the western flank of Gulf of Cambay, is considered one of the biggest shipbreaking and recycling yards in the world and is a home to thousands of migrants from Madhya Pradesh, Orissa, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Jharkhand.

"The migrant workers who live in the shipbreaking yards of Alang and Sosiya exhibit inclination to visit sex workers and thereby increase the risk of contracting HIV infections," said Dr Niloo Vaishnav, Chairman of Bhavnagar Blood Bank.
"We conducted HIV survey of the migrant workers of Alang shipbreaking yards from July 2004 to September by taking samples of 2155 people. The result indicated that 0.7 per cent of the people tested HIV positive," he said.

Vaishnav said though the result is not alarming, what is a matter of concern is their High Risk Behaviour. If the number of HIV infection is less, it is only because the sex workers whom they are visiting may not be having the infection. But their behaviour is definitely a matter of concern and hence we are creating awareness among the workers," he added.

Gujarat facing the dragon's threat

The study was conducted under the auspices of Project AIDS, Bhavnagar Blood Bank which is engaged in AIDS education and prevention work in Alang for over 10 years focusing on reducing high risk behaviour among the workers, Vaishnav said.

"As with other migrant workforce, the HIV status of the Alang population was of special interest because of long separation of the workers from home and family and the frequent visit to local sex workers," he added.

Vidyut Joshi, former Vice Chancellor of Bhavnagar University who has made a detailed study of the problems of the shipbreaking yards of Alang and Sosiya, said, "There is a growing sex worker industry in and around ASSBY. Knowing that most of the men are living alone for a long time, the sex workers know their physical needs and hence they come there often to lure them."

Ranjan Macwana, Project officer of Project AIDS who is working in Alang, told PTI that they were working to effect behavioural changes among the men by educating them about the need to use condoms whenever they go to the sex workers.

"Our aim is mainly Sexually Transmitted Disease management, condom promotion and high risk behavioural change communication. This is done through peer educators and volunteers who identify workers indulging in high risk behaviours and then are given counseling," she added.

Sameer Solanki, Field officer with AIDS Project, said to create awareness among the workers, they involve themselves with the workers on the occasion of religious festivals such as Durga Puja, Ganapati puja, befriend them, win their confidence and then create awareness among them about HIV prevention through safe sex.

Vaishnav said since there are no notified red light areas in Saurashtra, the workers visit the sex workers in Bhavnagar and Rajkot. They also visit villagers in the coastal areas where some women from fishermen community do part time work as sex workers to supplement their income.

Besides HIV, there is also prevalence of Hepatitis B among some of the workers. Among the sample workers, a total of 3.9 per cent had contracted Hepatitis virus.

Other health problems associated with the workers included skin diseases, eye problems, filaria and STDs. Workers who cut hazardous substance such as asbestos are also susceptible to asbestosis - an irreversible lung disease, said Dr. Vidyut Joshi who has done a study along with UNESCO.

Source: Rediff.com. Chandran Iyer in Alang | January 30, 2006

13 January 2006

Breaking Down Toxic Ships: Junkyard justice at Alang

The Clemenceau has set sail for India, and the spotlight is on the shipbreaking industry at Alang, where workers' safety takes a last-row seat and owners operate without fear of regulatory enforcement or punishment. Ramesh Menon writes that the toxic cargo presents an opportunity to reverse this tide of disgrace.

13 January 2006 - The French warship Clemenceau was decommissioned at Toulon in France way back in 1977, and lay there all these years as no country wanted it, even as scrap. With good reason - they decided it is a toxic ship with a huge amount of asbestos. The 27,000 tonne aircraft carrier, however, made news on New Year's Day as it set sail heading to the shores of Alang, the largest shipbreaking yard in the world, in Bhavnagar district of Gujarat. Just days before 2006 was rung in, a French court okayed the sending of the warship insulated with asbestos to India, after rejecting petitions by campaigners trying to block its transfer. Then, environmental activists of Greenpeace and other organizations managed to break the tight security and board the ship to shout slogans against it being sent to India, where impoverished workers would break down the toxic ship, with its 500+ tonnes of asbestos.

It would spread death and disease, the activists warned, quite apart from violating the Basel Convention on Transboundary Movement of Hazardous Wastes, which clearly prohibits one country transporting its toxic waste to another. The asbestos within could cause cancer and other health complications, warn activists, noting that this is precisely why other countries had refused to let the Clemenceau sail to their shores. Earlier attempts to send the ship to Turkey and Greece did not work as both countries refused the toxic ship for obvious reasons.

(Click on: http://www.greenpeace.org/alang to read the Greenpeace report on shipbreaking: End of Life Ships - the Human Costs of Breaking Ships)

Ravi Aggarwal, director of New Delhi-based Toxics Link and member of the Basel Action Network says that the sending of the ship to India is a clear violation of international law. "The French are now trying to say that it is not a ship but material of war and so cannot be covered under the Basel convention. At the moment it is being towed by another ship to India and it is clearly a case of toxic waste being shipped. It is completely illegal and allowing it should not set a precedent." His fears are well founded, with over 2000 oil tankers that are going to come up for breaking in the next 4 years. These oil tankers are very old ships and carry a lot of asbestos material within. Aggarwal also points to special laws like the Management and Handling Rules 1989 (Amended in 2003) which says that asbestos is a hazardous waste and needs special provisions to handle it. Alang does not have the capacity to handle asbestos, he said.

Since the furore broke, a Monitoring Committee of the Supreme Court on Hazardous Wastes Management has declared that the Clemenceau should not enter India. Committee Chairman G. Thyagarajan said it was not desirable for the ship to enter Indian waters. And if it were allowed, it would have to furnish a bank guarantee of Rs. 80 crore - twice the value of the ship. Said Thyagarajan: "Why should India spend Rs. 40 crore in foreign exchange to buy trouble? Why should we sacrifice our precious soil to bury some other country's junk?"

The French government had claimed that the ship contained only a few tonnes of asbestos as it has been decontaminated. Low levels of contamination may be acceptable to the monitoring committee, whose members are to meet again to review the decision before the ship arrives. But Eric Baudon and Jean-Claude Giannino, representatives of Technopure, the French company contracted to decontaminate the ship, told the Committee that the ship had only been partially decontaminated and it still contained at least 500 tonnes of asbestos.

"Why should there be any further review when those who decontaminated the ship say that there are 500 tonnes left?", asks an indignant Ramapathy Kumar of Greenpeace, India. "The question is not of quantity of the toxic waste, the issue here is that India cannot permit the ship as it is a signatory to the Basel Convention which forbids one country from sending its toxic waste to another country," he said. In France, the Committee's decision has attracted huge media attention as the Clemenceau episode is being increasingly seen as an eloquent reminder on how developed nations treat poorer countries in Asia.

India does not have strict rules at Alang. For over 2 decades now, the yard has been in the vortex of controversy, as it became an environmental bomb of sorts. Labour rules are flouted and India has done little to protect workers - who are mostly migrants from poverty struck districts in Orissa, Bihar and West Bengal. Alang is pockmarked with poor working conditions and a poor quality of life; the employment it has provided to thousands of labourers has been at a very heavy cost. Greenpeace says that workers die every month there because of its pathetic working conditions. Workers do not even have the mandatory protective gear while working in one of the dirtiest industries in the world. The laxity has attracted business; Greenpeace says that almost half of the world's ships that need to be scrapped now end up in India, and shipbreakers are laughing all the way to the bank, even as workers bear the brunt of regulatory failure.

Why is asbestos dangerous? Asbestos is resistant to heat and chemicals. Asbestos fibre is very very thin, a few hundred times thinner than human hair and is very durable. This is why it was in the past used as roofing material. One of its varieties, blue asbestos is banned in India. But in the shipbreaking yard of Alang, it can be found easily, as it was used in old ships that are broken down here. Automobiles also use it in brake and clutch lining pads. It is also used in floor tiles and pipes that carry water and sewage. When bound together it is relatively safe and the harm is done only when fine particles of the fibre are breathed by humans and thus enter the lungs. Over a period of time, exposure to the fibre can lead to a condition called asbestosis, and could also cause lung cancer.

It is possible to decontaminate large ships of their asbestos and other toxic materials by almost ninety percent, but most ship owners do not do this, as it is very cost intensive. It is easier for them to send it off to poor countries like Bangladesh and India where the laws are weak and whatever few regulations exist are not enforced. The French government claims it has removed around 115 tonnes of asbestos from the ship, but Greenpeace activists say that it is lying.

Says Ramapathy: "India must reject the ship, sending a signal to the world that it is not a dumping ground. If we allow this ship, there are another 120 warships of the United States that will now come for shipbreaking. All these ships were rejected by India in 1997. Greenpeace is not against the shipbreaking industry. All that we want is clean shipreabreaking that will not endanger health."

In December 2005, Greenpeace and the International Federation of Human Rights Leagues pointed out that countries that send their ships to India are actually condoning a poorly regulated system that has already killed many labourers. It said that accidents, explosions and contamination from hazardous waste have affected workers. The Clemenceau controversy has triggered a new demand by Greenpeace, Corporate Accountability Group and other organizations like the Centre for Indian Trade Unions to ensure stricter regulations for the shipbreaking industry.

There is good reason to worry. Alang's 40,000+ workers work in subhuman conditions, are not securely clad with overalls and helmets and work with their bare hands as they cut into the steel to earn a meagre wage. More than half a dozen workers die every month at the yard due to accidents or explosions. Workers use cutters and blowtorches to cut the steel and pipes containing gas or oil. Often, the shipowner does not disclose the dangerous content in the ship, and this result in explosions. As scores of rusting ships are beached at Alang one beside the other, accidents are common. Employers, who are typically hard-nosed businessmen, only look at the money that comes in. For Alang, the Clemenceau is a great catch as it is estimated to yield nearly 22,000 tonnes of steel.

Most of the ships that come to Alang are from United States, Yugoslavia, Poland, Russia, China and Japan. Nearly 300 ships are broken at Alang every year. Shipbreakers fear that the numbers will now fall at Alang as there is stiff competition from Bangladesh and China, which are also violating laws to woo business.

Gujarat, say activists, is particularly lax at protecting workers in hazardous industries, and would rather have the ship. Even chemicals that are banned elsewhere in the world are in production here. Ramapathy Kumar says, "The Gujarat Pollution Board is lying when it says that it is in a position to handle the waste as it is such a huge ship that it cannot be beached and will stay away atleast 3000 feet away. If it is to be decontaminated in India, it has to be done on a platform as it would otherwise pollute the water. Even one mg of asbestos can damage the lungs."

While so much of dust has been kicked up on the issue of the toxic ship that contains 500 tonnes of asbestos, the fact that thousands of tonnes of asbestos is wrecking havoc in the Indian countryside, is being lost. Asbestos is widely used in India for roofing, water pipes and construction. As there is heavy punitive litigation in the developed world against asbestos manufacturers and users, its usage has today collapsed to 2% of what it was 2 decades ago. But in India, consumption of asbestos is rising by an alarming 12%. There is no reliable data on asbestos-related diseases among Indian workers. As many as 36 countries in the world have banned asbestos. The European Union banned it in 2005. Interestingly, France banned all forms of asbestos fibres and products in 1977. Says Maneka Gandhi, former Union Enviornment Minister and MP: "Our entire policy on asbestos needs to be changed. We must stop being the junkyard of the world."

The Clémenceau aircraft carrier
Clearly, an opportunity to stop being the junkyard of the world is at hand, but will India take it? Or will business as in the past prevail, putting workers' health and national interests aside?

Source: India Together. By Ramesh Menon. 13 Jan 2006

10 January 2006

Hot Metal With Steel Soaring: A Ghost Fleet Is In High Demand

  • Shipbreakers Vie for Scrap From Navy's Discards
  • Concerns on Environment
  • An Indian Player's Big Plans

CHESAPEAKE, Va. -- Harsh Mishra, a businessman from India, stepped carefully along the jagged hull of a 50-year-old Navy submarine-rescue ship called the Sunbird. His workers had spent days tearing it open like a giant sardine can, revealing a maze of bunkrooms, pipes and engines below.

"Money doesn't always look pretty," said the 46-year-old, speaking through a haze of fumes from noisy diesel engines and odors from aged, rotting ship hulls.

Dismantling the 220-foot ship took three months and generated 1,200 tons of scrap metal valued at about $300,000, not including the engines, anchors and propellers that were sold separately. The U.S. government paid Mr. Mishra's company, Bay Bridge Enterprises LLC, an additional $85,920 just to take the ship, laden with environmental hazards, off its hands.

The Sunbird came from a group of about 129 old ships, collectively known as the "Ghost Fleet," which sit idle in a half-dozen ports around the U.S. These ships, maintained by the U.S. Navy and the U.S. Maritime Administration, or Marad, have become a juicy target for the industry known as shipbreaking. All but shut down for a few years in the late 1990s amid environmental concerns, the shipbreaking business in the U.S. is now making a comeback. It is being fueled by a convergence of government action with developments in the global steel, energy and freight industries.

The driving force is the steel business, which is booming amid demand from China and other fast-growing economies. Just under two-thirds of the one billion tons, or $400 billion, in new steel produced each year comes from iron ore; the rest is recycled from torn-up cars, washing machines, ships and other forms of scrap metal.

Steel mills around the world buy roughly $100 billion of scrap steel each year. Old ships are a major source of this recycled steel, providing as much as 5% of the scrap metal consumed annually.

Voracious Appetite:

But there's a shortage of old ships available to feed the steel industry's voracious appetite. With a global commodity boom under way, older ships are being kept in operation longer than normal to carry freight, oil, coal and other raw materials, not to mention huge amounts of scrap steel. Shipbuilders are expanding production, but it typically takes three years to build and launch a new freighter. Despite the huge demand for steel, Lloyd's List, a London-based maritime-industry trade publication, reports that about 232 vessels were scrapped in the first 10 months of 2005, down from 422 ships scrapped during the same period last year.

That helps explain why Mr. Mishra and other shipbreakers are fighting for a piece of the Ghost Fleet. Old ships can be bought all over the world, but the U.S. has one of the largest government-owned stockpiles and an active program to get rid of the ships for scrap or other uses.

Marad maintains three fleets in Virginia, Texas and California, spending thousands a year per ship trying to prevent corrosion, mold and mildew growth. As ship custodians for the federal government, the agency decides when to get rid of ships by paying a company to scrap them. Otherwise, the agency can sink ships in the ocean, either as part of military testing or to create artificial reefs for fish and scuba divers.

Shipbreaking has a long, dangerous and environmentally tainted history. Places like Bangladesh, Pakistan, India and China have become huge centers for shipbreaking. Lax regulations in many places allow companies to simply drag ships onto beaches and tear them apart. That creates huge environmental and worker-safety concerns. Workers in those countries often lack basic safety gear and can be exposed to dangerous substances like asbestos. Oil and other hazardous materials are routinely spilled into the sea.

Highest Bidder:

For years, commercial and government owners of old ships in the U.S. and other countries sold their ghost ships to the highest bidder, home or abroad. In the U.S., the dirty business was handled by a shadowy group of companies that dodged environmental regulations by frequently moving and changing company names. The business was virtually shut down after a series of articles in the Baltimore Sun in 1997 exposed industry practices. The government tightened regulations on domestic companies and stopped scrapping vessels overseas. A backlog of aging government ships soon developed.

Now, the U.S. government is forcing Marad to get rid of its current batch of aging ships quickly to avoid expensive maintenance costs. With tight environmental rules making shipbreaking more expensive in the U.S., Marad pays domestic firms to take the Ghost Fleet ships.

Workers at Bay Bridge Enterprises in Virginia cut scrap metal from the inside of the Sunbird, a submarine-rescue ship that was dismantled at the shipbreaking facility.

The policy shift has been a boon in recent years for domestic shipbreakers, including four in Brownsville, Texas: International Shipbreaking Ltd., ESCO Marine Inc., Marine Metals Inc. and All Star Metals LLC. It also required them to change their practices and business models.

Richard Jaross, 65, president of ESCO Marine and a 35-year industry veteran, says the industry has moved from being labor intensive to capital intensive. With 160 employees and about $25 million in revenue, ESCO is spending millions on new equipment to cut and clean metal from the ships, he says. He has hired environmental experts to make sure workers follow government regulations on removing and disposing of fuel, asbestos and other chemicals as they tear apart the ships.

In 2003, Marad, concerned that domestic shipbreakers couldn't dispose of the ships fast enough, tried to send 13 ships to Able UK Ltd., a shipbreaker in Teesside, England. Environmental groups on both sides of the water fought the transfer of the ships. Delivery of the last nine ships is being held up by a lawsuit in the United Kingdom.

U.S. environmental groups say they would rather have government ships scrapped in the U.S. "From an environmental perspective, we should be responsible for our own waste," says Michael Town, Virginia chapter director of the Sierra Club. "And if we sent the ships overseas, we can't control the environmental impacts." He said that although shipbreaking is an industry few want in their community, the U.S. companies are more responsible and also provide hundreds of jobs.

In the confluence of Marad's backlog and the strong demand for scrap steel, Mr. Mishra's firm Adani Group, a fast-growing commodity-trading company based in Ahmedabad, India, sees an opportunity to become the biggest U.S. player.

Adani, with annual revenue of $3 billion, is the largest importer of coal to India as well as a major importer of scrap metal. Shipbreaking is a small new venture for Adani, but it has big plans. It wants to open a second shipbreaking facility on the West Coast and to buy a scrap yard on the East Coast to export up to 1.2 million tons of scrap metal per year to India.

Last June, Adani bought Bay Bridge for less than $10 million, Mr. Mishra says. Bay Bridge operates from a small construction trailer on a football-field-long muddy finger of land extending from an industrial section of Chesapeake into the Elizabeth River. The property has 2 large berths, where ships are parked during dismantling. Two 150-ton cranes loom next to the ships and are used to swing clumps of metal and other debris off the ships. Adani has more than doubled the number of workers at Bay Bridge to 93 since acquiring it.

Already, International Shipbreaking of Brownsville is being forced to compete fiercely with Mr. Mishra's firm, which has been winning a larger share of ships from the government. "For a while, there was nobody cutting ships," says Bob Berry, chief operating officer of International Shipbreaking. "You couldn't do it because of all the environmental regulations and safety regulations you have to deal with. It cost a lot more to scrap a ship than the ship is worth in parts."

Besides the four shipbreaking companies in Texas, there are a couple of others on the East Coast, but virtually none on the West Coast. Hoping to tap the Ghost Fleet in San Francisco Bay without the long, expensive journey through the Panama Canal, Mr. Mishra is planning to set up a second shipbreaking facility in Oregon. He is hoping to select a site by next month and to dismantle nine to 12 government vessels there each year.

In some Oregon towns, Bay Bridge faces opposition from environmentalists, who fear a phenomenon called "hull fouling." The concern is that tiny organisms such as mussels and algae attached to the aging Ghost Fleet vessels docked in San Francisco could harm Oregon's rivers and bays if released there.

Risky Business:

The environment is only one challenge for the industry. "This is an inherently risky business. You could lose your shirt or you could get lucky," says Mr. Mishra. He points out that shipbreakers must bid on contracts months in advance and "you don't know what the steel scrap prices will be four or five months down the line."

The business is also dangerous. Mr. Berry, at International Shipbreaking, says his firm, which employs mostly Hispanic workers, has experienced some fatal worker accidents in recent years. "It can be a dangerous business," says Mr. Berry, "but we make it as safe as it possibly can be."

At Bay Bridge, workers in protective suits and respirators first drain oil and remove hazardous materials such as asbestos-laden insulation and cables coated with polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs. They then rip out copper plumbing, metal bunks and lavatory appliances.

Taking apart the ship itself usually starts at the top, with workers using blowtorches to cut the hull into removable chunks. Shipbreakers must consider the weight and balance of a ship as they do this, to make sure the ship doesn't tip from side to side during the demolition process, potentially injuring workers.

On a recent day, Sheldon "Patrick" Dass and other workers were down inside the Sunbird with hand torches, slicing up rusty file cabinets, piping, sinks, beds and metal walls.

"You've got to know what you are cutting," says Operations Manager Denson Spence, 47, who often joins the men in cutting up the ships. "You don't want to cut the wrong thing." Platforms could collapse, a pipe leading to a tank could explode or a cut below water level could cause water to gush in.

Daniel Reppert, 25, sat behind the wheel of a huge, yellow front-end loader, watching wads of scrap get lowered onto piles in front of him. Mr. Reppert's job was to sort the metal, creating piles of copper piping in one spot, steel plate in another. At a nearby scrap yard, workers sorted the metal further and then ran it through huge shredding machines.

When the work day was done, the men headed for a special locker room in a "decon" trailer in a fenced-off area. They decontaminated their work clothes by placing their white, disposable plastic suits in a sealed bin and their cotton work uniforms in a hamper to be washed. They showered and scrubbed with industrial soaps. Half the laborers at Bay Bridge are Hispanic, and most start at $8.50 an hour.

Bay Bridge gets most of its ships from the Ghost Fleet, which has a collection of ships stationed on the James River, a half-day boat tow away.

The Maritime Administration gave 33 ships and about $35 million to a half-dozen certified recyclers around the country in 2004 and 2005. By contrast, the agency made $35 million from 1991 to 1994 by selling 81 ships, before it stopped selling ships to third-world shipbreakers.

Not all Ghost Fleet ships are earmarked for the scrap yard. Some are bound for museums. Some were called back into service during the Iraq War and during the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Others are bound for watery graves. The Hoyt S. Vandenberg, a Cold War-era mobile tracking ship nicknamed "The White Ghost," could be sunk in the Florida Keys to create a fish habitat.

Workers at Bay Bridge Enterprises in Virginia cut scrap metal from the inside of the Sunbird, a submarine-rescue ship that was dismantled at the shipbreaking facility.

Source: Wall Street Journal. By Paul Glader. 10 January 2006