Where dirty ships go to die

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By Duncan Graham-Rowe

On a beach near Chittagong, Bangladesh, teams of men clamber over what used to be an oil tanker, ripping it apart with little more than a cutting torch and their bare hands. Working in oppressive heat amid toxic fumes, this is one of the most dangerous jobs in the world – and one of the most polluting. Each ship contains some 50,000 tonnes of metal, toxic chemicals and asbestos. The last place you’d want it to be dismantled is on a beach in the developing world, but this is exactly what’s in store for this tanker and thousands of others.

It began as a plan to end marine oil spills by phasing out the world’s entire fleet of single-hulled oil tankers. Single-hulled ships have just one layer of steel separating their cargo from the ocean, so even a minor collision can prove catastrophic. When the Exxon Valdez ran aground in 1989, spilling some 34,000 tonnes of crude oil into Alaska’s pristine Prince William Sound, environmentalists called for single-hulled tankers to be scrapped in favour of safer double-skinned versions. Governments and shipping authorities around the world drafted a plan to upgrade the global fleet of more than 2000 oil tankers by 2015. After several more spills the deadline was brought forward by five years. Many of these ships could end up on a Bangladeshi, Indian or Pakistani beach.

Oil tankers are particularly difficult to dispose of safely (see Diagram). Even when unloaded, each contains thousands of litres of oil sludge. Their electrical systems include tonnes of carcinogenic polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) as well as toxic heavy metals such as lead, cadmium, mercury and zinc. What’s more, their hulls are coated with potentially damaging chemicals such as tributyltin (TBT) to stop barnacles and other marine life sticking to them.

The world has no shortage of docks suitable for the job, however. Shipyards in the UK and Romania, for example, have large dry docks lying idle that could easily break ships instead of building them. China, Holland and Turkey are showing that it is possible to break ships in a responsible way (see “Green breakers”). So why are ships being broken on the beaches of India and its neighbours, spewing toxic waste into the environment?

According to Frank Stuer-Lauridsen of the consultancy DHI Water and Environment in Hørsholm, Denmark, the problem is money. “It’s not that there is no capacity,” he says. “It’s because there is no market.”

The west is replete with steel, so there is little demand to recycle it. In India, it’s a different story. Ten per cent of all India’s steel comes from ships scrapped on its beaches, and people will pay good money for it.

With such powerful market forces at work, the International Maritime Organization (IMO), the International Labour Organization (ILO) and the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) are struggling to find a solution. But with a wide range of agendas – the IMO focused on maritime safety and pollution, the ILO on the safety of the ship-breaking workers, and UNEP’s Basel Convention working to combat the dumping of hazardous waste – it will not be easy. The only point of agreement appears to be about where the ships are likely to end up. “It seems to be accepted that we are going to have to scrap ships on beaches,” says Robin Townsend of the London-based maritime consultancy Lloyd’s Register.

So a scheme designed to prevent one type of environmental disaster looks set to cause another. A study carried out in 2000 by Norwegian maritime consultancy Det Norske Veritas, which specialises in risk assessment, found traces of oil in seawater around the beaches of Chittagong and “significant” levels of PCBs, heavy metals and TBT in the soil and air. Much worse is likely to come, as thousands of ships set course for their final destinations.

Faced with this prospect, the IMO is drafting a convention on ship recycling that would make it legally binding for shipowners to clean up their vessels before sending them to the breakers, stripping out much of the hazardous materials from ships before they reach the beaches. It could also require that the ships are only sent to breaking facilities that abide by the ILO’s guidelines on ship-breaking.

However, the convention, even if approved, might not come into effect for several years, by which time many more tankers will have found their way onto beaches. And even when it comes in, not everyone is convinced that it will work. “It’s utopian and naive to think you can totally clean a ship and deliver it to a beach,” says Paul Bailey of the ILO. You would practically have to dismantle it to carry out a thorough clean-up, he says, and towing it to a beach would then be “extremely precarious” because a towed, partially dismantled boat is less manoeuvrable and so more likely to sink.

The main concern, however, is that legislation will be all but useless against the prevailing market forces. When India introduced regulations to encourage shipowners to have their vessels checked for dangerous gas build-up before arriving on the country’s beaches, the owners simply took their business elsewhere. Shipowners could dodge an international convention by, for example, selling the ship to an intermediary from a non-signatory country who then sells it on to a shipyard with no links to the ILO. “On paper it looks good, but in reality there would be all sorts of ways to get around it,” Bailey says.

Some environmentalists are more optimistic about the future. Martin Besieux, a campaigner for Greenpeace in Brussels, Belgium, is hopeful that the draft convention will eventually make a difference. He says that pre-cleaning ships is the way forward and that the risks of towing tankers are overplayed. “There is no danger in dragging a ship if you do it in the proper way,” he says.

While the debate goes on, some operators are already using loopholes in the law to keep their vessels afloat by carrying other cargoes or using them as quayside storage. This may be something of a mixed blessing – while they are still intact, at least they are not contributing to beach pollution. But regardless of regulations, many of these vessels are nearing the end of their working lives. Their owners – and the regulators – are running out of time.

Green breakers

The world contains enough facilities to break up ships in an environmentally friendly way. China has a small number of dry docks that abide by voluntary guidelines on the safe and clean scrapping of ships, drawn up by the International Labour Organization. In Turkey, beach-scrapping is common, but Oktay Sunata of the Turkish Shipbreakers Association insists it is possible to scrap ships on beaches in ways that do not pollute. On Turkish coasts, where there are virtually no tides, the ships can be winched ashore and sliced “like a salami”, with no fear that high tides will disperse any of their hazardous contents. The entire industry in Turkey abides by tight regulations regarding containment and treatment of contaminants, Sunata says.

All of this comes at a cost. Many of the Turkish yards sit idle because they pay less than half, and sometimes less than a third, of what shipowners could get in India and Bangladesh for their old vessels. Despite these financial realities, a Dutch company called Ecodock plans to launch the first of a new type of highly automated ship recycling docks in Eemshaven next year. Using a system of cranes and heavy cutting equipment, the dock will be a zero-pollution facility, its designers claim. Up to 95 per cent of the ship will be recycled, and the rest disposed of safely and responsibly. The 45 million euros facility would be capable of disposing of a tanker in just a few weeks, rather than the several months it can take in Asia.

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