25 January 2011


On March 24, 1989, the Exxon Valdez tanker hit Bligh Reef on Prince William Sound and spilled more than 11million gallons of Alaskan crude oil into the water. In response to this environmental disaster, the U.S. Congress passed the Oil Pollution Act of 1990 and other regulations that required oil companies to phase out use of their single-hull ships and replace them with double-hull ships. The idea is that if you have a double hull and hit something—like a reef—the ship’s outer hull will break but not its inner hull, keeping the ship afloat and the oil inside.

A complicated technical debate exists among marine engineers as to whether double-hull tankers are actually safer; so far, there’s no evidence that the switch has caused fewer accidents or oil spills. Nevertheless, the rest of the international political community soon followed the U.S. example and set similar regulations.

Suddenly, the oil companies had a big problem: How to get rid of these huge single-hull ships?

Some ship owners chose to convert their single-hulls to double-hulls at a cost of many millions of dollars rather than scrap a relatively young, and still commercially viable, asset. But most have gone for the cheaper option of shipbreaking (or in more positive terms, “ship recycling”).

In theory, ship recycling makes sense: these huge ships are full of valuable steel and other materials and parts that can be scrapped, melted, resold and reused. (A very large tanker, for example, can provide 30,000 tons of steel, worth about $1million on the scrap market.)

But in practice, ship recycling—done almost exclusively in poor countries where labor is cheap and the local demand for scrap steel is high—is notorious for its medical and environmental hazards.

Scrapping a ship by hand can be done in as little as six months.

First, anchor chains and braided steel cables pull the vessel up the beach and secure it to the ground.
Next, the ship’s fuel tanks are emptied. Usable oil gets resold, while sludge is burned on the beach.
Next, the crews attack the inside quarters of the ship, ripping out wood paneling, the electrical system and asbestos-filled insulation to get at the valuable piping.
Finally, the ship’s engine is removed and the remaining steel monster is cut apart in large pieces, using torches, and hauled up the shore.

With a vast, starving population, South Asia has a pool of laborers willing to subject themselves to harsh conditions for meager wages. Now, more than 90 percent of the world’s junked ships go to India, Bangladesh and Pakistan to be dismantled

Source: BOSS. Summer 2007

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