Once a ship, now toxic waste

Feature story - 4 October, 2002
It’s no longer a ship. It used to be a car ferry, but then there was a fire. The fire burned for a week. Then the ship, the Greek owned Silver Ray, was declared a “construction total loss”. In other words, now it’s not a ship. It’s a 200 metre long floating toxic waste site bound for a scrap yard.

Activists use a banner, hung on the Silver Ray (soon to be scraped) and projector to show the poor conditions at shipbreaking yards. In the foreground is the Argus.

To the Greenpeace activists who have been on board since last night, it's also an opportunity to say how shipbreaking is done wrong, and how it can be done right.

They hung a banner from over the ship's side. It wasn't your regular Greenpeace banner - it had a big blank space in the middle. Activists projected images in the blank space - showing what will happen if this ship is sent for scrapping before the toxic materials are cleaned out. The screen showed people picking up asbestos with their bare hands, oil in the paint and the water…business as usual at ship breaking yards in places like Bangladesh, Pakistan, and India.

Then they activists deployed a new banner, "Toxic waste: Clean up now", and (after some negotiations with the police) they stayed on the deck overnight.

The next morning more activists arrived with two independent experts - one specializing in asbestos, and the other in general toxic contamination. The specialists took samples from the ship to begin assessing the toxins on board. The work only continued for an hour before the police arrived and ordered everyone off the ship.

As ordered, the specialists left, but an analysis of the samples they took with them will be ready next week. For now, four Greenpeace activists remain on board the burned out Silver Ray, and others are using the Argus (a Greenpeace boat) to visit crews on other ships in the Antwerp harbour.

"Ship owners must provide public inventories of hazardous materials on their ships as a matter of routine and guarantee dangerous substances are safely removed before vessels are scrapped. By failing to do this, they're exposing thousands of workers in Asia directly to poisons and causing catastrophic environmental problems," said Frank, a Greenpeace campaigner on board the Argus.

Sailors, and other people who work around ships, can be a big help in Greenpeace's work to protect the workers and environment at ship breaking sites. Click here if you are in a position to aid our ship-spotting programme.