Aged ships a toxic export
A looming spike in retired vessels could send tons of PCBs and asbestos to South Asia's 'ship breakers' before new international regulations take hold.
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With prospects cooling for the global economy, legions of older commercial ships now plying the world's oceans are expected to be scrapped when shipping volumes fall from current high levels and they become uneconomical to operate.Skip to next paragraph
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The London-based International Maritime Organization is developing tougher global ship-recycling standards to protect workers and the environment. But these won't take effect until 2013 at the earliest – too late to offer meaningful protection from the coming surge of old ships.
Before they take effect, hundreds of ships weighing a total of 55 million tons – more than double the volume of the past five years – may be scrapped, a European Commission study on the global ship-scrapping industry estimated last year. A peak of 18 million tons of ships is expected in 2010.
"We all know about this looming problem," says Frank Stuer-Lauridsen, a Copenhagen-based maritime expert who co-wrote the study. "But nobody seems to have the energy to address this interim period, and the signs are not good."
While "green" ship recycling using sustainable environmental and safe labor practices is maturing in the US and elsewhere, the lure of higher prices paid by unsafe, polluting ship-scrapping operations overseas is strong, experts say. As a result, "the vast majority" of European Union-flagged vessels "along with the rest of the world's obsolete vessels" still make their last voyages to beaches and ship yards in India, Bangladesh, or Pakistan where safety practices are far less stringent, the EC report found.
In Alang, India, for instance, ships are often driven onto the beach, where workers with minimal personal protection cut them up with torches, spilling toxins into sea and air, maritime experts say. With fewer environmental and labor requirements, ship recycling in places like Alang can be highly profitable, but highly dangerous for workers, the EC report on ship recycling found.
The official tally of people killed at Alang from scrap-yard accidents in 2003-04 was 26; the unofficial total was 103, the EC report said. (There have apparently been improvements among some of India's ship-breaking companies, including moves toward safety certification, the EC report acknowledges.)
"The impact these ships will have on the environment and workers is horrible to contemplate," says Jim Puckett, coordinator of the Basel Action Network, an environmental group that spotlighted the SS Oceanic for possibly carrying PCBs.
By contrast, ship-recycling practices in the US have improved and are now among the best in the world, the EU study found. After the Baltimore Sun won a Pulitzer Prize for its 1997 reporting that the US was sending its old warships to India for scrapping under horrendous working conditions, Congress halted that practice and mandated US-only recycling. Now government-owned vessels overseen by MARAD are scrapped at seven certified US ship-recycling yards.