Friday, December 4, 2009

Where The Shipping Industry Discards Its Rubbish As Freight And Passenger Levels Slump

We Look at Ship-Breaking ……. Recycling, Commerce or Murder for Money?
Shipping News Feature

INDIA – BANGLADESH – PAKISTAN – TURKEY –US - Along with all the other freight and shipping press we have documented the fall in bulk cargo and freight container levels over the past months. Anyone familiar with deep sea shipping knows that there now exist vessel parks around the coasts of the world where ships sit at anchor, with skeleton crews, due to overcapacity in the industry. New builds are postponed or cancelled and naturally owners with vast sums tied up in such vessels look to improve cashflow in such hard times.

So what happens when a vessel is worth more dead than alive? In the case of famous ships there is an emotional dilemma. This month there is a wringing of hands over the fate of the USS John F Kennedy, the last of a breed of non nuclear aircraft carriers, with a name that reeks of sentiment for the American people. There are cries to preserve the ship, bring her back to her pristine best, maybe transform her into a floating museum.

Such solutions are simply not practical for any normal vessel, and probably indeed for the carrier herself, at the point she becomes non viable there is really only one option, dismantling and use as scrap, salvaging all useable parts to become the raw materials which fuel manufacturing now that natural resources are dwindling and prohibitively expensive.

In Europe there still exist ship breaking specialists, companies like Fornaes Shipbreaking in Denmark who specialise in dismantling fishing boats and small coastal vessels. Like any European employer they are bound by a stringent code to ensure they maintain the strictest levels of health and safety for their staff. This seems to now be an established industry trend. Small, relatively local ships will be dismantled fairly close to their home ports for obvious reasons, but in the case of any larger vessel the ship will simply go to the highest bidder, and that means the one who can keep their costs to a minimum.

We highlighted recently the case of the Oceanic / Platinum II, a mystery vessel which appeared on the Indian coast awaiting destruction. We traced her back to a berth in San Francisco and found she was in fact the SS Independence, surreptitiously moved around the world before arriving for her execution at the hands of the Alang breakers. The latest news we have is that, having been refused permission to beach she still lies on her moorings awaiting a destination.

So why the cloak of mystery? Why not merely sell the ship on the open market and walk away? The answer is simply the amount of pollutants and toxic materials built into the ships of that era. And in Alang secrecy is the key to profits. We contacted literally dozens of ship breaking operators on the subcontinent for information and met with a total wall of silence. Alang is the heart of the industry, the infamous beach stretches along the west coast of the Gulf of Camray and the reason for its success is simple. Twice a month the tide floods excessively, and cause more of the beach than usual to be under water. Then is the time to power up the engines and crash the doomed vessel into the beach at full speed. The tide recedes to a reasonable depth and workers flood up the hull, like industrious ants, immediately to start ripping and cutting off the fittings.

When you study the videos embedded within this piece, mostly gathered illicitly as the bosses want no publicity regarding working conditions, you may think of Dante’s vision of Hell or a film of a busy steelworks but nobody could help to be aware that the working practices leave a lot to be desired. Men lowering lit oxy acetylene torches to colleagues, cutting gear used with no eye protection, cables at full stretch pulling whole bulkheads away.

This however is not the worst of the problem. Shifts start at seven in the morning and go through till eleven at night with two hours in breaks. The work is done on or around the beach by unskilled labourers who travel from the poorest parts to work for a pittance, largely without any representation. Often there are no latrines or showers, and disease is rife. No work – no pay so they labour on with severe injuries and little chance of proper medical attention.

The sites see asbestos thrown freely about, the dust filling the air, the toxic smoke from metal cutting drifts amongst the workers. Heavy metals run freely into the sand along with the waste lubricants to wash out to sea. In Alang alone estimates state that 45 tonnes per day of waste, toxic to some degree, are lost in the beach.

The Geneva based International Metalworkers Federation, who published an extensive survey in 2007 on working practices in the region, estimates that in Bangladesh a worker dies in the breaking yards every three weeks on average. The organisation states that seven Bangladeshis died in one week in October this year. One was crushed in an accident, three from noxious fumes and three others crushed under a falling section of ships plate, one man only seventeen years old. Six men were burned to death in Alang on the fourth of August in an horrific accident which prompted calls for an enquiry, the Indian authorities do at least take a passing interest in the welfare of their people but this does not seem to have a measurable effect.

Dismantlers in the US, in places like Brownsville where the industry has been in place for over forty years, may be in secluded areas where cynics say they are beyond the reach of normal restrictions but they perform their duties under the watchful eyes of the US Occupational Health & Safety Administration (OHSA) who monitor performance constantly and working conditions are worlds apart from those of the subcontinent.

Turkey is yet another country where ship breaking is thriving. As we understand it, admittedly in this case from sources on the management side of the industry, conditions are somewhere between the two extremes of the US and places like Alang. Ships are broken in areas of non permeable flooring so that all noxious fluids can be gathered. Turkey, moving toward closer ties with the EU need to take heed of the DIVEST project, funded by the European Union to ensure member states ensure ships are disposed of properly, safely and with all environmental bases covered. Those interested in learning more about this initiative can follow the links to the relevant EU page here.

One thing all participant countries have within this industry is the desire to recycle absolutely everything they can. Unfortunately profit is the motive for most companies both selling, and breaking, ships. Global Marketing Systems (GMS), the US based ship purchasing agency and the largest cash buyers of defunct tonnage in the world operate in most of the major ship breaking zones including China. Their site gives a good breakdown of how different methods apply to each zone but obviously they have little or no control over what purchasers do with a vessel after they have taken possession. Recent reports that a ship bound for a Malaysian firm for use as a floating reservoir was being touted on the Indian and Pakistani breakers markets were recently highlighted by the company.

Once again it will require firm, concerted government action to ensure that conditions in the third world countries who take on more and more of this work treat all those involved in a humanitarian way and ensure they work in reasonable conditions. Individual states need to be compelled to comply with rulings like that of the Supreme Court of India acting on a case involving ship recycling in September 2007 where recommendations for the safe procedures necessary to dismantle vessels are clearly outlined.