The cost of cutting corners

Feature story - July 15, 2003
Politicians deciding on rules for scrapping old ships got a timely reminder when a sculpture, made from the remains of ships taken from Indian shipbreaking yards, was delivered to delegates attending the International Maritime Organisation (IMO) meeting in London.

Activists deliver a sculpture made from the remains of ships taken from Indian shipbreaking yards to delegates attending the International Maritime Organisation in London.

The sculpture was made from the funnels of five old ships, one of which, the Greek owned Amina, exploded in the yard, killing nine people and causing over a dozen serious injuries. The sculpture serves as a reminder of the human and environmental toll caused by current shipbreaking practices. The Amina exploded in Alang, India, in February 2003 because it contained hazardous gas and other toxic substances. However the Greek owner, Chandris, still refuses to take any responsibility for not cleaning the ship before hand. Only mandatory rules will help prevent tragedies like this in the future.

The IMO sets legally binding rules for the shipping industry. This week it will address the current practice of dealing with end-of-life vessels. Even today old ships are being sent to Asia and to other developing countries containing hazardous substances which routinely risk the lives and health of local people and destroys their environment.

"With this sculpture we want to make clear that this lethal business of sending toxic ships to Asia and elsewhere without cleaning them first must stop. Currently voluntary measures proposed by the IMO will not protect the people or the environment. Some ship owners and others in the shipping industry have told us that they too want mandatory rules to provide a level playing field. We call on the IMO to establish a legally binding regime to deal with this business, which is a form of waste trade," said Ramapati Kumar, from Greenpeace in India.

The ships sent for scrapping often contain substances such as asbestos, PCB's and oil known to damage human health and the environment. In addition the presence of other substances, such as fuel or gases in tanks increases the risk of explosion and other accidents putting the safety of workers at risk.

The ship owners currently continue to send vessels for breaking full of hazardous substances, which would normally not allowed to be traded according to the international waste trade laws. We believe that unless the ships are decontaminated prior to their arrival at shipbreaking yards, the shipping industry is, in practice, breaking established principles of international law.

We know current voluntary proposals are not enough to prevent pollution or to improve the dangerous working conditions in shipbreaking yards. Effective prevention of pollution takes place only when hazardous substances are removed from end-of-life vessels. This needs to be mandatory and consistent with international waste trade laws.

Update:

The meeting ended Friday with agreed guidelines that fall short fully cleaning up the ship breaking business.

More:

Recently a delegation of people involved in shipbreaking in Asia toured Europe to call for an urgent solution to the environmental and health problems associated with the industry. Read about the experiences on the tour and view the pictures.