Breaking a ship at Alang can be toxic, shows Dutch docu

It shows how a Dutch-owned, but Bahamas and Palau-flagged ship contaminated with mercury was broken at Alang despite warnings against doing so

By Rohan Gupta
Published: Tuesday 17 September 2019
The Alang ship-breaking yard. Photo: Zembla

A recent Dutch documentary has highlighted how environmental and safety norms are flouted in Gujarat’s Alang shipbreaking yard.

The Dutch-language documentary Het gifschip van SBM aired on Zembla, a Dutch television documentary programme on September 12, 2019. The English version was aired on September 16.

The documentary shows how the Dutch company, SBM Offshore, concealed that a gas tanker it owned, which was to be scrapped in Alang, was contaminated with mercury. SBM Offshore provides floating production solutions to the offshore energy industry.

The ship Yetagun was manufactured in 1979 and sold to SBM Offshore in 2000. SBM got the tanker refurbished by Keppel shipyard in Singapore to convert it into a Floating storage and offloading (FSO) vessel.

Stationed at the Yetagun gas field, Myanmar's second-largest, Yetagun FSO started operating on May 7, 2000. The gas fields contained high levels of mercury, which attached to the steel walls of the tanker while it was stationed there, Zembla stated in a press release, also circulated on September 12.

Although the ship was owned by SBM Offshore, its operator during the end-of-life stage was VR Maritime Services Pvt Ltd. According to the annual list released by non-profit Shipbreaking Platform, the last flag carried by the ship was that of Palau, a Pacific island nation. The previous flag was that of the Bahamas.

After the ship’s name was re-flagged to Palau, its name was changed from Yetagun to TAG.

The issue of mercury in the ship came up when the time came for the vessel to be demolished. The ship was sold to by ship-breaking company Best Oasis, a fully owned subsidiary of Priya Blue Industries Pvt Ltd, based in Bhavnagar, Gujarat.

A cover-up

According to Zembla, after the issue of mercury cropped up, SBM contacted a third-party expert bureau, asking it to investigate the tanker. Zembla obtained the report filed by the bureau which found that the tanker contained high levels of mercury and warned SBM of potential serious health issues for the ship demolition crew.

SBM, in its bid to avoid the clean-up costs, tried downplaying the report and commissioned another bureau to conduct a second investigation, alleged the release. Contrary to the first report, the second report found no high levels of mercury contamination.

Zembla claims that those involved with the second investigation told it the examination was not well-conducted and SBM played a major role in making sure that it bypassed the huge clean-up costs associated. SBM went forward with selling the tanker to Best Oasis for demolition.

Down To Earth (DTE) contacted SBM and Priya Blue for their comments but did not receive a response.

A researcher from Zembla involved in the making of the documentary, sent DTE statements of SBM in response to Zembla’s allegations.

“Two surveys were carried out in Indonesia to ascertain mercury levels in the steel of Yetagun FSO. The first survey was carried out by a small company which we had no knowledge of or history with. They were appointed by the cleaning contractor we had hired,” SBM said.

It added: “The second survey was carried out by a reputable, specialised company, with whom SBM has a working history. The two surveys differed in the methodology employed — the first company used only surface level spot sampling, whereas the second used thorough thickness sampling.”

On September 27, 2018, after the Yetagun had reached India, three non-profits namely Shipbreaking Platform, Zero Mercury Working Group and European Environmental Bureau jointly sent a warning letter to The Gujarat Maritime Board (GMB), informing it about the high mercury levels.

The warning letter noted that there was mercury in the ballast water (300 points per million or ppm of mercury in 4,500 tonnes of ballast water), pipes, and steel body (1, 40,000 ppm) of the ship.

Such mercury concentrations could damage the central nervous system, kidney and liver impairment, reproductive and development disorders, defects in foetuses and learning deficits, the letter warned.

The letter asked The GMB to make sure that the 2013 Minamata Convention, of which India is a signatory, was followed. The convention is an international treaty designed to protect human health and environment from the emissions of mercury and mercury compounds.

The warning letter also noted that mercury contamination could also pollute the intertidal zone.

Zembla told DTE that initially on October 5, The Gujarat Pollution Control Board (GPCB) refused permission to beach. After an appeal, The GPCB conducted another monitoring exercise and finally permitted the beaching on October 3, 2018.

“We sent a letter to Indian authorities to warn them about the vessel, which, we had been told, contained high levels of mercury. We called upon the authorities to implement the Basel Convention and halt the import of this ship,” Nicola Mulinaris, communication and policy officer with Shipbreaking Platform told DTE.

The 1989 Basel Convention is an international treaty that was designed to reduce movements of hazardous waste between nations.

Mulinaris said The GPCB did indeed detect mercury but his organisation suspects its inspectors only tested the slops and not the contaminated steel. DTE contacted The GMB and The GPCB for comments but did not receive a response.

Flouting of norms

The permission given for the demolition of the Yetagun without proper cleanup was not the only problem endangering the ship-breaking crew’s health, found Zembla.

SMB, in its statement to Zembla, said the ship demolition was being carried out according to international regulations and that the workers were receiving protective gear, masking them from mercury fumes. They were also trained properly and mercury vapour levels were below exposure limits.

Zembla used a hidden camera to verify these claims. The camera footage showed that the workers were completely unprotected and openly exposed to mercury fumes. On being asked if he had been made aware of the existence or the name of any poisonous gases being emitted out of the ship, a ship-breaking worker replied in the negative on camera.

Zembla also reported that it received independent statements from workers stating that they received protective gears only during inspections and some complained of having breathing difficulties and nausea.

Loopholes galore

Owing to lax environmental laws and pathetic working conditions, The European Union (EU) forbids the demolition of its ships in Indian shipyards. But this prohibition extends only to ships carrying flags of EU member states.

As noted before, the Yetagun was owned by a Dutch company and was sailing under the Bahamas flag first and then under Palau. A 2015 report by Shipbreaking Platform noted that 73 per cent of the world fleet was flagged in a country other than that of the vessel’s ownership. One-third of end-of-life vessels beached are owned by EU companies while just 8 per cent of the vessels sold for demolition bear a EU flag.

The most sought-after flags are those of St Kitts and Nevis, the Comoros and Tuvalu, which have relatively weaker law enforcement and offer legal loopholes to ship owners.

India has 154 ship-breaking yards, out of which 66 have received Statements of Compliance from the Hong Kong Convention (HKC). But the standards set by the HKC ignores critical issues such as labour rights and downstream waste management, which puts the lives of workers at risk along with posing a threat to the environment.

India, along with other South Asian countries like Bangladesh and Pakistan, is the most attractive destination for ship scrapping due to its low costs resulting from these low pollution and health standards.

Last year, 14 workers reportedly lost their lives at Alang. The exact numbers aren’t available as the local authorities do not share the records and serious injuries are rarely recorded, notes Shipbreaking Platform. Ship-breaking yards in South Asian countries have remained infamous for their high human and environmental costs.

Last year, the Union Ministry of Shipping decided that it would develop Alang, Asia’s largest shipping yard, into an eco-friendly one, enabling it to even dismantle warships. According to the ministry, warships entail a huge business opportunity for India due to non-availability of warship dismantling facilities across the world.

An eco-friendly shipyard poses a peculiar challenge because Indian shipyards are attractive as demolition grounds for the very reason that they are cheap and less regulated. Reforming them could result in the loss of business to Bangladesh and Pakistan.

It remains to be seen what will top the government’s priority list — corporate profit or workers’ health?

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