Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Burial at Sea

India fights to keep a deadly industry authorities say it cannot afford to lose
Photos courtesy of Andrey Potapov

The first stop of its final voyage was to collect 3,000 tons of Icelandic blue whiting from the Faroe Islands. Then, the ageing 370-foot Russian trawler ferried the fish to Nigeria. Three months later, the rust-riddled Komandarm Shcherbakov sailed on to India, to die.

On May 6, when the tide was highest, the vessel pointed its bow landward, gunned its engines for the last time and slid up the beach between the skeletal carcasses of other scrapped ships at India’s biggest ship-breaking yard, Alang. There, it found its final resting place in the sand.

According to the ship’s chief mate, Andrey Potapov, the Shcherbakov had asbestos insulation in its engine rooms and elsewhere, like many vessels of its age.

“It was built 25 years ago,” Potapov said. “They didn’t know it was bad back then.”


Amrika Prasad was named after America. The closest he ever got to his namesake, however, was Alang, where more than half of the world’s ships were once sent to die. There, hundreds of miles from his home village, Prasad broke down discarded vessels from America and other countries, pulling his livelihood from the toxic guts of old warships, trawlers and cruise liners. Asbestos, hazardous PCB chemicals and radioactive materials were all currencies of his trade.

But one day in 1996, a plate of steel falling from a dead ship would land squarely on his back, ending his working life and crippling him forever.

With the help of a local lawyer, Prasad filed a compensation claim against his employer, who had no insurance for his workers. After nine years of fighting the case, the court ordered the ship breaker to pay Prasad 578,000 rupees ($14,440). That was only half of the battle. Prasad’s lawyer, Pradeep Thakker, is still fighting to collect the sum from the owner. Thakker says about 130 workers’ compensation claims he represents are still pending settlement. And Prasad’s wait is not uncommonly long.

“Working at Alang is a very hard job,” Thakker says. “So the downtrodden people of society work there.”

Most of the 5,000-odd workers now employed at Alang are migrants, risking fatal casualty rates six times higher than the mining industry for a few dollars a day. A committee appointed by the Indian Supreme Court in 2006 found that one of every six workers is suffering from early symptoms of asbestosis.

But as the Indian ship-breaking industry loses ground to the more competitive scrap-yards in Bangladesh and Pakistan, the authorities here are desperately trying to save it.

“India has the capability to recycle warships, nuclear vessels, passenger carriers and all kinds of ships,” says Atul Sharma, environmental engineer for the Gujarat Maritime Board, responsible for inspecting ships before they beach at Alang. Sharma confirms that the Indian authorities have never denied entry to a ship for scrapping, no matter how old or how toxic. While India will continue scrapping these ships, he said that prior decontamination should be the responsibility of the vessels’ owners, a call echoed by environmentalists and a 2003 Supreme Court ruling.

In the meantime, Sharma says asbestos and PCB chemicals are removed, bagged and placed in protected landfills. Environmentalists argue that putting PCBs in landfills is prohibited by the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants, to which India is a party.

In September, 2007, the Indian Supreme Court issued two orders to regulate the industry. While requiring ship owners to be transparent about the materials their vessels carry onboard, the rulings point out the value of the industry. In the past ten years, ship recycling has brought 23 million tons of steel into India, a country badly in need of the metal, one says. In periods of high activity, the yard at Alang has employed upwards of 40,000 workers. A ship-breaker can expect to make $10 million recycling a large vessel.

But environmental groups argue that the true health and environmental costs of the industry haven’t been measured.

“These are toxic chemicals,” says Gopal Krishna of the Ban Asbestos Network of India. “But the moment these things enter Indian territory, they become non-toxic.” Krishna and others say the hazardous material onboard these ships are putting the workers and the surrounding village in great danger. “It’s an act of barbarism,” he says.

Krishna says the ship buyers and breakers hoodwink international law by using dummy companies to transfer ship ownership, changing the vessel’s name and flags on the high seas and lying to authorities about the final destination of the ships they intend on scrapping.

This was how the SS Blue Lady (formerly the Norwegian Cruise Line’s SS Norway) came to be beached at Alang. The 47 year-old, French-built steam liner has an estimated 1,200 tons of asbestos on board, in addition to several other toxic and radioactive materials. After the Blue Lady was decommissioned by a 2003 boiler explosion that killed eight crew members in Miami, Norwegian Cruise Line sent the ship to Bremerhaven, Germany. There the ship’s captain told inspecting authorities that the vessel would be repaired in Malaysia. But once on the high seas, the Blue Lady was “re-flagged” after being sold to Bridgend Shipping, of Monrovia, Liberia. It changed ownership again before arriving at Alang in June, 2006, where its dismantling has begun.

Jim Puckett, coordinator of the Seattle-based Basel Action Network, a group dedicated to stopping international trade of toxic materials, says last September’s Supreme Court rulings have failed to effectively regulate ship-breaking at Alang.

The Basel Convention, from which Puckett’s group derives its name, was adopted in 1992 to stem the trade of toxic chemicals. It was signed by 170 countries, including India but not the United States. The convention prohibits a signatory country from accepting hazardous material from a non-signatory, but Puckett says the rule of law is being flouted in Alang by the heavyweights of a very powerful industry.

“It’s complete anarchy on the beaches of India right now,” he says. “No one is in control except the ship-breakers. They seem to be running the show.”

Gopal Krishna, of the Ban Asbestos Network, says it takes a bribe of 125,000 rupees ($3,125) to arrange all the necessary papers to get a ship beached quickly. The breakers often take out loans from the bank to purchase large vessels to scrap. In doing so, they must scrap the ship quickly to avoid high interest rates cutting into their profits. Krishna and others say that this haste leads breakers to disregard the safety of their workers and the environment.

While the breakers stand to make substantial profits with every ship they scrap, workers like Amrika Prasad are not so lucky. After 12 years, he, like many others, is still waiting for his former employer to pay a single rupee of compensation for the loss of his limbs.


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