India, dumping ground of asbestos waste
Alang-- On its final voyage, the 25-year-old, 370-foot Russian trawler Komandarm Shcherbakov collected 3,000 tons of blue whiting fish from Denmark's Faroe Islands and ferried the catch to Nigeria. Three months later, the rust-riddled vessel sailed into this port - to die.
In May, the vessel gunned its engines for the last time and slid up the beach alongside the skeletal remains of numerous other ships at India's biggest ship-recycling yard in the western coastal state of Gujarat.
Like many vessels of its era, the Shcherbakov has asbestos insulation in its engine rooms and elsewhere, according to the ship's chief mate, Andrey Potapov.
"They didn't know it was bad back then," he said.
The Komandarm Shcherbakov is just the latest character in an ongoing drama of foreign waste dumped on Third World shores, critics say. Environmental groups say there are 90 ships on Alang's beaches, none of which has been precleaned of asbestos, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) or other hazardous material. PCBs were once used as fire retardants in paints, gaskets, cables and flooring.
"These are toxic chemicals, but the moment these things enter Indian territory, they become nontoxic," said Gopal Krishna of the Ban Asbestos Network of India, who accuses India of shirking its responsibilities as a signatory of the Basel Convention, which prohibits the international trade of toxic material.
Krishna and other activists argue that such hazardous materials are putting surrounding villages and Alang's estimated 5,000 workers in danger.
A 2006 report by India's Supreme Court found that the number of fatal accidents in the shipyard is six times higher than the nation's mining industry and that 1 in 6 ship recyclers suffer from asbestosis, a chronic inflammation of the lungs caused by prolonged exposure to asbestos fibers.
Ship recyclers are mostly migrants from India's poorest states, who toil for $2 to $3 a day scavenging steel sheets, pipes and bolts and cutting heavy plates of steel with blowtorches. A 2005 study by the International Federation for Human Rights showed that 48 to 60 workers at Alang ship recyclers die each year, mainly from explosions and falling plates of steel.
"This is the most vulnerable workforce in the world," Krishna said. "There are whole villages of widows."
State officials, however, say Alang properly disposes of all hazardous materials. While entire sections of asbestos paneling are resold in a street market outside the yard, the unusable materials and PCB waste are bagged and dumped in a nearby landfill.
Environmental groups argue that landfill disposal violates the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants, of which India is also a signatory. The convention considers landfills as unsuitable disposal sites for PCBs.
"India has the capability to recycle warships, nuclear vessels, passenger carriers and all kinds of ships," said Atul Sharma, an environmental engineer for the Gujarat Maritime Board.
But Alang is losing business to the cheaper, less regulated recycling yards of Bangladesh and Pakistan, which are more convenient for ship brokers seeking to dump a vessel with minimal preparation beforehand. Alang, which is still the major recycler of large vessels, scrapped only 129 ships in 2007, down from a high of 428 in 2001, according to the Indian Ship-Breakers Association.
Perhaps with that in mind, the Supreme Court report said the overall value of the industry must be considered when discussing the adverse environmental and health conditions of Alang. In the past 10 years, the court pointed out, Alang has produced 23 million tons of steel and employed 40,000 migrant workers. Scrapping one large ship can mean $10 million.
"No development is possible without some adverse effect on the ecology and environment," said a court statement last year.
But the court also issued a ruling requiring ship owners to compile a list of toxic materials to be disposed of in an environmentally sound manner.
Jim Puckett, coordinator of the Basel Action Network, a Seattle group dedicated to curbing international toxic trade, said the ruling has failed to regulate the ship recycling industry.
"There is just no way in the world that this can be sustainable for the environment and workers. It's complete anarchy on the beaches of India right now," Puckett said.
"No one is in control except the ship-breakers. They seem to be running the show."
A tale of two ships
In 1992, the Basel Convention, signed by 170 nations, curbed the trade of toxic materials. A signatory country like India cannot accept hazardous material from a nonsignatory nation like the United States.
Environmental activists say ship owners typically skirt international law by using dummy corporations to transfer ship ownership, changing the vessel's name and flag on the high seas and lying to authorities about its final destination.
SS Blue Lady - The 47-year-old ship, formerly the Norwegian Cruise Line's SS Norway, was decommissioned after a 2003 boiler explosion killed eight crew members in Miami. Norwegian Cruise Line then sent the vessel to Bremerhaven, Germany, where the ship's captain told authorities the ship needed repairs in Malaysia. But once on the high seas, the Blue Lady was sold in 2006 to Bridgend Shipping of Liberia and then beached at Alang, India, with an estimated 1,200 tons of asbestos and other toxic and radioactive materials.
SS Oceanic - Another former Norwegian Cruise Line ship, which sailed out of San Francisco in February after docking at Pier 70 for four years. Built in 1950, the ship has 250 tons of asbestos and 210 tons of PCBs, according to a waste stream analysis by Werner Hoyt, a ship recycler in Weed (Siskiyou County).
The SS Oceanic is owned by the Maryland-based Global Shipping LLC, a subsidiary of Global Marketing Systems, which scraps more than 100 vessels every year. Currently, Global Shipping is facing an EPA lawsuit, which alleges the ship is bound for a foreign scrap yard, a violation of the U.S. Toxic Substances Control Act.
A Global Shipping spokesman, however, says the company is looking for buyers to turn the 57 year-old ship - last seen near Dubai - into a floating hotel, casino or housing for laborers.
Sources: Basel Action Network, Ban Asbestos Network of India, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Global Shipping LLC and Werner Hoyt.
This article appeared on page A - 2 of the San Francisco Chronicle