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Asbestos for India: France considers aircraft carrier's fate

The ghost ship nobody wants

Feature story - 12 December, 2005
Imagine you're the State of France. What do you do with a 27,000-ton warship full of asbestos, PCBs, lead, mercury, and other toxic chemicals, which you don't want and no European country is willing or able to scrap for you? Why, you send it off to India to be broken up by hand in a scrapyard where impoverished workers are injured and die every day.

Greenpeace activists challenge the departure of former French aircraft carrier Clemenceau to India. The decommissioned vessel, full of asbestos and other toxic chemicals, is bound for shipbreaking yards where it will be dismantled by unprotected and untrained workers, by hand.

Not if we have anything to say about it.

This morning, climbers scaled the mast of the French aircraft carrier "Clemenceau," unfurling a banner reading "Asbestos Carrier Stay Out of India."  Another activists buzzed the deck of the carrier with a motorized paraglider and a banner reading "Not here. Not Anywhere."  It's part of a day of action in Bangladesh, Geneva, and France aimed at demanding immediate reforms of one of the world's most dangerous and dirty industries.

Victory! Update 15 Feb, 2006: French President Chirac has announced a dramatic recall of the asbestos-laden warship Clemenceau - it will be turning around and going back to France. Our actions, emails to Chirac and an embarrassing international scandal left France with little choice but to abandon the misguided attempt to dump its own toxic mess on India.

Clemenceau: the ship nobody wants

Greenpeace has been watching the fate of the site of today's action, the French aircraft carrier Clemenceau, since 1997, when it was decommissioned.  Back then, plans were to simply scuttle it in the Mediterranean as an "artificial reef" - albeit a highly toxic one.  Since that time, the French government and the ship's various subsequent 'caretaker' owners have been trying to figure out a way to get rid of it, ideally stripping the ship of its dangerous asbestos and other toxics while retaining the salvage value of its 22,000 tons of steel.

Years of attempts to get another European country to take the ship have failed.  And removing the asbestos responsibly, in France, is simply too costly a prospect for somebody holding onto a glorified piece of floating garbage which they've bought in the hopes of making a quick buck.

That's when the Indian scrapyard of Alang begins to look like a dreamcome true for somebody who wants to send their problems away to a place where environmental regulations are lax and workers' rights are practically nonexistant. The French courts have cleared the path for the ship to be exported to India by saying its fate is a "military matter" and thus claiming they have no jurisdiction for keeping the ship in France.

There's just two little problems: Greenpeace, and international law.

Shipbreaking in Asia

The Clemenceau may be one of the largest ships to be sent for scrap but every year a vast decrepit armada bearing a dangerous cargo of toxic substances, asbestos, PCBs and heavy metals, ends up in ship breaking yards in Bangladesh, India, China and Pakistan, where they are cut up in the crudest of fashions, taking a huge toll on human health and the local environment.  Half of the world's ocean-going ships end their sailing lives in India. Most of these vessels land on the ship breaking beaches of Alang (Bhavnagar district, Gujarat) on the country's west coast.

In most ship breaking nations proper waste management is absent. There are no rules and regulations.  And where rules exist, they're unlikely to be enforced.

Barely equipped workers dismantle the carcasses of ships by hand. They haul disemboweled cables out to burn them on the beach. They use blowtorches to cut through pipes containing oil and gas that often explode in their faces. Steel plates and pieces fall off the ships. And they are exposed to deadly toxins 24 hours a day.  Lost limbs and burns are common place. One out of four workers in Alang is expected to contract cancer due to workplace poisons, making the industry amongst the most deadly in the world.

Why then do labourers come to Alang?

AskSashi Sethi, the widow of Surendra Sethi, eking out a meager living in Khaling village in Orissa. After her husband died in Alang, she warns other young men not to go.  But they tell her in response, "If we go to Alang only one man dies, but if we don't five will die."

We say it's garbage

The Basel Convention is an international treaty which prohibits the export of hazardous waste from rich to poor countries.  We worked hard many years ago to see this treaty implemented as a way of ending the terrible practice of using non-OECD countries as cheap dumping grounds for dangerous wastes which are expensive to treat properly in the OECD countries where they originated.

The International Maritime Organisation (IMO) claims the regulations of the Basel convention don't apply to ships like the Clemenceau. It's still a ship, goes their reasoning, as long as it floats, and it isn't waste until it arrives. If the toxic wastes embedded in their structure were removed, placed in a barrel and then put back on the ship, then it would definitely be illegal. Today, at the Palais des Nations in Geneva, representatives of three United Nations bodies will begin a three day meeting to discuss ways to bring the ship breaking industry under control. The IMO has resisted any attempt to loosen its grip on all ship-related regulation and bring the industry under the purview of Basel.  As a concession earlier this month, the IMO announced plans to develop a new treaty for ship scrapping. However, it will not come into effect for at least another five years and is likely to place the burden of responsibility on the breaking yards and not the ship owners.

"Not all of the casualties of this toxic trade are unknown," said Marietta Honjoro of Greenpeace International. Together with the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Greenpeace visited the working and living places of ship breakers in India and Bangladesh, to witness first-hand the story of this human and environmental tragedy.

Their report follows the story of 110 workers who have died during accidents in ship breaking yards of India and Bangladesh. "The stories in the report represent only they tip of the deadly iceberg, there is no record of those who died of long term diseases related to toxic exposure," said Honjoro.

What we want

"While the talking continues so does the dying," said Honjoro. "This week's discussion must conclude, at a minimum, that until the IMO provides new regulations for ship scrapping, the industry should adhere to the Basel convention and international human rights conventions. "End of life ships should be treated like any other toxic material under the internationally recognised Basel Convention which bans the dumping of such waste by OECD countries in non-OECD countries.

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