MAC: Mines and Communities

Unlearned lessons

Published by MAC on 2006-07-23

Unlearned lessons

By The Hindu

23rd July 2006

India risks becoming a dumping ground for hazardous ships as a second asbestos-laden vessel anchors in its waters.

The "Blue Lady", which holds 1,240 tonnes of asbestos-containing material, was permitted by the Supreme Court to anchor off the coast of Gujarat.

IN February, French President Jacques Chirac recalled to France the decommissioned aircraft carrier Le Clemenceau, which was then awaiting permission to enter Indian territorial waters for dismantling at Alang, Gujarat. The decision was not just a result of a verdict by the Conseil d'Etat, the supreme court for administrative justice in France. The President reasoned that France was honour-bound to act with transparency on the subject of break-up of ships, which raised global issue of environmental protection. Bowing to public opinion in India and France, he ordered a second assessment of the quantity of asbestos and other pollutants still present on the ship; the ship was to stay in French waters until a definitive solution for its break-up was found.

Chirac's appeal to Europe to strengthen the facilities for pollution elimination and establish strict global standards that guarantee respect for labour law, workers' health and the environment when a ship is exported to a foreign breaker's yard for break-up seems to have had little impact on Europe.

There is much in common between Clemenceau and "Blue Lady", a French ocean liner, (named first SS France and later SS Norway), sold to Norwegian Cruise Lines (NCL) in 1979. Both were pressed into service in 1961, Clemenceau as part of the French Navy and SS France as a passenger ship in 1972. Mounting costs meant the French withdrew the SS France in 1974. Re-christened SS Norway in 1980, it was the first superliner employed in cruise services and began its maiden voyage to Miami that year.

A contract for the dismantling and removal of asbestos from Clemenceau was signed in 2003. That year, SS Norway met with a boiler explosion in Miami that killed seven crew members and injured 17 . The tragedy was a turning point; the NCL decided not to sail the ship again and handed it over to its parent company, Star Cruises, which towed the ship to Bremerhaven, Germany, on September 23, 2003 for repairs.

Owing to the large amounts of asbestos aboard the ship (mostly in machine and bulkhead areas) the Basel Convention prevented SS Norway from leaving Germany for any scrap yards. However, after assuring the German authorities that SS Norway would go to Asia for repairs, the ship was allowed to leave port under tow on May 23, 2005 because the cost of repair was prohibitive in Germany, and there was a clear plan for dismantling it elsewhere. The ship reached Port Klang, Malaysia, on August 10, 2005. After Bangladesh refused permission for dismantling the ship, it set sail for Alang. It seems that the German authorities were misled by the ship-owners, who concealed their plan to dismantle the ship. The Indian Platform on Ship-breaking has appealed to Germany to enforce the law and recall the ship, because the decision to scrap the ship was made before it left Bremerhaven in Germany. Under European Union law and the Basel Convention, the ship's export from Germany constitutes a case of illegal hazardous waste export.

The huge volume of asbestos on these two ships is cause for concern. As Clemenceau was recalled to France, it allegedly had a minimum of 500 tonnes of asbestos-contaminated materials remaining on board. According to the Indian Platform on Ship-breaking, a coalition of non-governmental organisations (NGOs), there are more than 1,200 tonnes of asbestos and unknown quantities of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) on board "Blue Lady".

But such legitimate concern did not deter the Supreme Court from permitting on June 5 Blue Lady to anchor at Pipavav on the Gujarat coast. It did so on the basis of an interim report submitted by the Technical Committee, which was set up by the court in the wake of the Clemenceau affair. As the applicant in the case pending before the Supreme Court, Gopal Krishna explained that the Technical Committee allowed itself to be misled by the Indian buyer of the ship, the Haryana Ship Demolitions Private Limited, which made out a case for permission on humanitarian grounds in view of the monsoon. According to him, the ownership of the ship by this company is shrouded in mystery; the Technical Committee has not been supplied with any purchase agreement with the previous owner of the ship.

The committee recommended that in view of the upcoming monsoon, and limited privisions, the ship may be permitted to anchor off the Alang coast. It also stipulated certain conditions for the beaching and dismantling of the ship. On June 5, the Supreme Court found these conditions prima facie reasonable and permitted action to be taken in terms of the committee's recommendations, even though it would not confer any equity on the owners of the ship.

Inexplicably, the committee appears to have ignored the findings of Gujarat Enviro Protection and Infrastructure Limited (GEPIL) that the total quantity of asbestos-containing material used in the construction of the ship is around 1,240 tonnes, of which 1,050 tonnes is contained in wall and ceiling panels embedded in a matrix of other materials. The Indian purchaser of the ship has claimed that GEPIL would carry out the complete job of safe removal, packaging, storage, transport, treatment and disposal of asbestos containing material as per national and international norms.

Gopal Krishna has expressed serious misgivings that are yet to be addressed by the Supreme Court. He has pointed out that the Supreme Court's interim order in the Research Foundation case on October 14, 2003 was violated by the permission given to "Blue Lady". According to this order, it is only after decontamination that a ship can be permitted to enter Indian territorial waters. There is not even a whisper about decontamination in the Technical Committee's interim report.

Moreover, SS Norway apparently left the Malaysian waters on May 5 after misleading Malaysian authorities that the ship was on its way to Dubai for repair works. The ship did go to Dubai briefly, but it returned to the Gujarat coast. This fact was concealed from the Technical Committee and the Supreme Court before they gave permission for anchoring. As the state of export, Malaysia is obligated under the Basel Convention to recall the Blue Lady and ensure its environmentally sound disposal. On February 15, Bangladesh prohibited the entry of the ship into its territorial waters. The Supreme Court and the Technical Committee are apparently oblivious to the circumstances of that decision.

Sanjay Parikh, counsel for the petitioner, Research Foundation for Science, Technology and Natural Resource Policy, told the Technical Committee that complete transparency and a uniform procedure for the protection of the environment and the national interest and Indian laws ought to be followed in all cases of ship-breaking. He has termed the interim recommendation of the committee untenable; it is not clear whether the owner of the ship had submitted the documents concerning decontamination, quantity and the nature of hazardous waste, nor whether the export permission given to the ship owner laid down the terms and conditions for safe and environmentally sound disposal of hazardous waste.

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