Image: Shipbreaking yard
Ajit Solanki  /  AP
Workers dismantle a ship at a breaking yard in Alang, India. After spending 20 to 30 years on the high seas, large ships make their way to beaches across South Asia to be dismantled.
updated 5/11/2009 12:51:07 PM ET 2009-05-11T16:51:07

Governments gathered Monday to hash out measures to make recycling old ships safer and more environmentally sound amid criticism the proposals would fail to limit pollution and protect workers in the industry.

The five-day meeting in Hong Kong was expected to see countries approve international rules governing the ship breaking industry, based largely in South Asia, whose practices kill scores of workers every year and leave beaches stained with oil and other chemicals.

Among rules being considered: controlling the amount of hazardous materials ships are built with and requiring older ships to be broken down in yards that meet certain environmental standards.

Adopting a ship recycling convention will help limit the industry's impact on "safety, health and the environment for this and future generations," Efthimios E. Mitropoulos, secretary general of the International Maritime Organization, told delegates in Hong Kong.

At the same, he called on government to balance efforts to make ship recycling safer and greener with "commercial requirements ... industry concerns and any associated economic considerations."

Critics complained the draft would safeguard industry interests at the cost of workers and the environment.

They say the convention falls short, lacking effective enforcement and failing to hold responsible Western ship owners for removing and treating noxious waste from their vessels. It also allows beaching, an environmentally hazardous practice in which ships are broken down along the shoreline; it's commonplace in South Asia.

Activist: 'More harm than good'
"This does more harm then good," said Ingvild Jenssen of the NGO Platform on Shipbreaking, a Brussels-based group of 14 environmental and human rights organizations. "They're going to rubber stamp some dangerous practices."

Ship breaking, like other industries in an age of globalization, migrated several decades ago from the West to the developing world. Up to 1,000 ships are broken down each year, mostly in India, Bangladesh and Pakistan and to a lesser degree China and Turkey, according to industry estimates.

When it comes to jobs that workers in rich Western countries don't want, there are few more dirty and dangerous than scrapping the world's freighters, luxury liners and oil tankers.

Explosions and fires kill scores of poorly equipped workers each year in South Asia where most ships are broken apart. The region's beaches are littered with rusting vessels, staining the sands with oils and other chemicals.

The industry shifted away from shipping yards in the industrial world because many of the older ships — some as tall as 15-stories and several football fields long — are full of dangerous materials such as asbestos that wouldn't meet health standards. It is also more profitable and requires less red tape to sell a ship for recycling in the developing world.

But with the boom in the trade has also come dangers. Greenpeace and other environmental groups have estimated that 50 to 60 workers die each year in the ship yards of India and Bangladesh. Hundreds more are injured or sickened from contamination to toxins like asbestos, mercury and polychlorinated biphenyls, they say.

Aircraft carrier's odyssey
Environmental groups, along with some European countries, seized on the deaths to call for reforms in South Asian yards and their efforts have begun paying off.

The French aircraft carrier Clemenceau was originally set to be dismantled in India, but revelations that it was loaded with asbestos sparked protests by environmental groups there. As a result, it traveled to Britain in February where it is being broken down at a yard specializing in hazardous materials.

Meanwhile, the European Union has called for better procedures and checks on ships sent to South Asian yards in the wake of the Clemenceau debacle and expectations that as many as 800 single-hulled tankers in Europe will be phased out by 2015 in favor of safer, double-hulled ships.

Asian courts, too, have stepped in. They're requiring ship yards in Bangladesh and India to clean up their acts or face closure. Indian yards have implemented tougher environmental standards following orders from the country's Supreme Court while a court ruling requiring all yards in Bangladesh to get environmental clearance has been appealed.

For supporters of the proposed convention like the International Chamber of Shipping and the Ship Recycling Association of India, it simply reaffirms the direction the industry is already heading.

Yet critics of the draft convention say it has no effective measures to enforce the standards, provides no assistance for cash-strapped governments to upgrade facilities and fails to hold ship owners in the West responsible for removing and treating hazardous waste from their vessels.

It also fails to ban beaching, an environmentally hazardous practice in which ships are driven onto the shoreline where they are then broken down. It is commonplace in South Asia.

The convention is a "major step back from existing environmental principles," said Jenssen. "It pushes the responsibility to handle hazardous materials downstream to developing countries."

Opposition from environmental groups is unlikely to sink the convention and most delegates expected it to be ratified.

But there remain questions as to whether all the recycling countries will come on board. Bangladesh, for one, has called for funding to meet the convention's requirements.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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