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Sure, in My Backyard (SIMBY): The Toxic Politics of Ship-dismantling

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The Exxon-Valdez is in the news again — this controversial ship is set to be disassembled, and its scheduled dismantling  is bringing light to important issues such as how to preserve the health of workers and how to protect the environment from the ships toxic elements. When the vessel crashed in the Gulf of Alaska, it spilled 11 million gallons of oil and polluted over 700 miles of coastline, making the disaster the worst ship-wreck oil-spill of all time.  Since the tragic Alaskan oil spill, the 27-year-old Exxon-Valdez was recently bought by an Indian (Bhavnagar-based) firm for dismantling at Alang Beach, the largest ship-recycling yard in Asia today.

Ship being Dismantled


Basel Ban on Hazardous Waste Export


Even before the notorious ship could dock, controversy has ensued. A case has been filed in Supreme Court of India against the docking of this ‘toxic’ boat, especially since it is believed that it was not decontaminated before being exported (as the Basel Convention requires). It also raises questions about the practice of exporting end-of-life ships to the third world. Both the European Union and the US will not accept such vessels.

The problem has been grave enough to call for a UN ban in 2011, which has 178 nations as signatories. This ban specifically addresses the dumping of hazardous sea-faring vessels on the developing world for end-of-life demolition. Particularly, it requires decontamination in the parent-country before any such export. The Basel Convention deemed necessary in the early 1990s to control the trans-boundary movement of hazardous materials from rich (specifically OECD) to developing (non-OECD) countries.


Potential Human Health Concerns


[youtube] Since early 1980s, the Alang Ship Recycling Yard has been the main dismantling center in India for end-of-life vessels, and prides itself in generating much-needed employment. But, toxicity in these ships has an adverse impact upon the Indian coastline; workers dismantling the ships come into contact with toxins, as do the villages, residents and fisherman in the area.

Much of the toxic problem of demolition of these old ships is inherent in the original manufacturing. . In-built toxicity exists in boats due to insulation,waste-oil, mercury, arsenic, asbestos (and asbestos containing materials or ACMs), glasswool, ply, poly-chlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), etc. A large variety of toxins are involved in breaking-down older vessels.


Ship breaking in-progress in Chittagong, Bangladesh

Ship breaking in-progress in Chittagong, Bangladesh


Economics of Ship-dismantling


Debate has become intensified by the state government’s of Alang.  The government believes that ship dismantling in the region is an important economic niche that took lots of effort and time to create. It is estimated that a staggering 5000 dead foreign ships have come here since 1982. As the controversy rages, the state government argues that competitors in nearby countries, Pakistan, China and Bangladesh, are ready and willing to take-over what they spent 30 years building.

The Gujarat government argues that they have spent a significant amount of  money to be environmentally compliant at the yard, and that the facility offers important employment opportunities. The central government and Supreme Court, on the other hand, seems more concerned with the environmental impact of this industry. They are pressing for closer adherence to the Basel Convention because the hazard to workers, as well as past accidents, have generated a global sentiment of caution against dismantling.


Photo courtesy of Stephane M. Grueso  via Flickr — Creative Commons License
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