How we poison Bangladesh with toxic ship carcasses

Ship being demolished

Hundreds of ships are demolished each year on a fifteen kilometre stretch of coastline near the city of Chittagong. Photo: NLC

Workers are dying in Bangladesh’s shipyards because the west's shipping industry - including UK companies - is not taking responsibility for the disposal of ageing vessels

They are known as ‘cutters’: men who enter the tanks of huge ships, armed with a blowtorch, sunglasses and a rag to cover their mouths. Their job is to cut slabs from ships’ hulls that are sent to steel mills for re-rolling. 

The 50 or so cutters working in Bangladesh’s ship-breaking industry who entered the 275 metre long Agate on a December morning last year had been told by their bosses that the ship was ‘clean’ - free from dangerous oil and gas residues. 

But when sparks from their cutting equipment hit the bottom of the tank, there was a massive explosion.

‘It was the main gas tank in the ship. Its size was huge. I was to cut one side of the tank. Other workers also started cutting the tank. After some time the tank exploded with a tremendous bang and the tank burst into flames. I was knocked out and don’t know what happened afterward,’ said Noor Alam (pictured), one of the injured workers.

A 'hell on earth'

The Agate burned for eight hours, killing eight and leaving 13 others with horrific injuries. But for the 30,000 or so workers who make their living dismantling ships on the beaches north of Chittagong, the 50-foot flames leaping from the burning ship were a familiar sight.

In southern Bangladesh’s thriving ship-breaking industry, one worker dies a week from explosions and falling steel plates. Many more are injured.

Charles Kernaghan of the National Labour Committee (NLC), an American NGO, has documented the working conditions in some of the shipyards. He described a ‘hell on earth’, where children handle asbestos with their bare hands and workers emerge from the darkness of ship tanks dizzy and spluttering, only to pass

Noor Alam was told by his bosses that the Agate was free of gas and oil residues. Photo: NLC
Noor Alam was told by his bosses that the Agate was free of gas and oil residues. Photo: NLC

out on the beach.

At night, the beach is lit up with the neon glows of the blowtorches of workers on the second 12-hour shift. The only interruptions come when large accidents, such as the explosion on the Agate, close the yard for a few days. 

Soups of oils and asbestos

Bangladesh’s ‘ship-recycling’ industry dates back to the mid-1960s, when a Greek ship, driven ashore by a tidal storm, was purchased and recycled by the Chittagong Steel House.

Gradually, a ship-breaking industry developed that was fuelled by Bangladesh’s lack of steel and an availability of cheap labour to dismantle ships. 

Once pristine beaches soon turned into oily soups. The ‘low-cost’ beaching of ships has led to large quantities of asbestos, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), contaminated oil and arsenic seeping into coastal waters.  

A study by the Marine Science Institute at the University of Chittagong found that, since the industry began, up to 21 species of fish and crustaceans have disappeared altogether, and 11 others are in a precarious position.

Large amounts of mangrove swamps are being cleared to make way for new yards. Last year, the ATN Bangla News Channel reported that 15,000 trees had been felled in three nights.

Coastal fishermen are leaving the area or joining the army of workers in ship-breaking yards.

Fighting the shipyards

The dirty nature of the industry has not gone unnoticed. Rizwana Hasan, a Bangladeshi environmental lawyer who won the 2009 Goldman Prize, has campaigned against the shipbreaking industry since 2003. 

Lawyer Rizwana Hasan speaks to shipbreaking workers. Photo: Tom Dusenbery
Lawyer Rizwana Hasan speaks to shipbreaking workers. Photo: Tom Dusenbery

In March 2009, she made a breakthrough when the country’s Supreme Court ordered the closure of all 36 shipbreaking yards operating without clearance.  So far the yards are still in operation, but Hasan says the tide is finally turning as public pressure has forced policy-makers to look at ways of regulating the industry.

But it’s not just Bangladesh that needs to clean up its act. International legal frameworks have proved disastrously inadequate at addressing the environmental and human rights violations associated with the industry.

The Basel Convention, which was became European law in 2006, governs the export of hazardous waste.  In theory, this means any ship containing hazadous substances cannot be sent for scrappage in a developing country without extensive pre-cleaning.

Unfortunately, the Convention is riddled with loop holes.

Ships can be in international waters when their owners declare their intention to scrap the vessel, where the Convention does not apply. It can also be bypassed if ships fly flags of countries that are not party to the Convention. These so-called ‘flags of convenience’ can be purchased cheaply over the phone from shipping authorities from countires like Mongolia, Tuvalu, Antigua and Barbuda.

Research by Ingvild Jenssen, of the NGO Ship Breaking Platform, shows that around two thirds of the world’s large vessels are sailing under ‘flags of convenience’ belonging to small states that compete by promising to keep taxes, fees and regulation light for shipowners. 

A source from Britain’s Department for Environment, Farming and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) said that brokers were advising shipowners on how to get around the legislation and said it was ‘almost impossible to hold shipowners to account.’

'Toothless' legislation

Shipbreakers at work near Chittagong. Photo: NGO Platform on Shipbreaking
Shipbreakers at work near Chittagong. Photo: NGO Platform on Shipbreaking

The Hong Kong Convention, which is intended to replace the Basel Convention by 2015, has attempted to take account of the commercial reality of the ship wrecking industry. But it’s being called ‘toothless’ by the very people it hopes to regulate.

Yogesh Rehani of Global Mangament Systems, an American cashbuyer of ships which frequently sends vessels to Bangladesh, said the Hong Kong Convention gave no incentive for shipowners to clean ships of hazardous substances before sending them to developing countries.
Crucially, the Convention says that ship owners are required to have received either a 'Safe for Man Entry' certificate or a 'Safe for Hot Work' certificate before attempting to scrap a vessel.

‘If it costs $10,000 to clean a ship for man entry and $200,000 to clean a ship for hot work, what incentive is there to clean it properly?’ said Rehani. 

He said that any requirement for certificates was hard to enforce anyway.

‘Chemists obtain favours from agents, and issue these certificates and hope nothing happens,’ he said. 

Warnings ignored

8 workers were killed and 13 injured when the Agate exploded
8 workers were killed and 13 injured when the Agate exploded

In the case of the Agate, a reliable source has told the Ecologist that the ship was inspected by the Bangladeshi Department of Explosives (DoE), and that warnings were made about the condition of six tanks on the ship.
However, according to workers' testimonies, the ship yard owner, Rahim Steel & Shipbreaking, ordered workers to go ahead and dismantle the vessel.

Such risk taking is a reflection of the lack of regulation and the demand for ship dismantling to be done quickly. The global downturn in commercial sea traffic and the phasing out of Europe’s single-hull oil tankers means demand for ship scrappage is at an all time high.

The UK’s Andrew Weir Shipping Limited is one of a number of companies whose vessels have ended up on the beaches of Bangladesh in the past year.

The Boularibank, Mahinabank, Tikeibank and Gazellebank, all registered in Antigua and Barbuda, were Finnish-built icebreakers converted into cargo ships in the mid 1990s. When global demand for cargo vessels fell last year and Swire Shipping cancelled the ships’ charter, Andrew Weir Ltd put them up for sale. 

Sold for around $330 per deadweight tonne to a Bangladeshi shipyard through a cash intermediary in China, the company is likely to have made over $10 million from the sale.

The 'Lucky Shipyard'

There is no implication that workers have been killed or injured dismantling Andrew Weir’s ships in Bangladesh. But workers at the ‘Lucky Shipyard’, where the Boularibank is in the final stages of demolition, have described it as ‘a place of punishment and death’.

The Boularibank in Antwerp. The ship was beached in Bangladesh in late September 2009. Photo: Derek Sands

When the NLC attempted to visit the yard, they found workers as young as 12 working seven-day weeks and being paid 27 cents per hour. Some of the workers described seeing a fellow worker killed in front of them in April when a steel plate fell from a ship they were working on.
When the Ecologist contacted Andrew Weir Ltd, the company refused to comment on the ethics of sending vessels to south Asia’s perilous shipbreaking yards, and refused to confirm whether its ships had been cleaned of hazardous substances before arriving in Bangladesh. The company also refused to comment when asked if it knew it had breached European law to send ships for scrappage in non-OECD countries.

But a look at the company’s history suggests it should be aware of the rules. Another of its ships, the Forthbank, was detained in Antwerp by Belgian authorities in 1999 and was only released when Andrew Weir Ltd gave assurances to the Antwerp prosecutor that it would not be sent for scrappage in south Asia.

Two years later, the Forthbank was beached and pulled apart on the same beaches in Bangladesh its four other vessels are currently being dismantled. 

One among many

It could be argued that companies like Andrew Weir are simply benefiting from poorly conceived - and even more poorly regulated - shipping laws. Identifying perpetrators in the murky world of international shipping might be difficult, but finding hypocrisy is not.

‘You cannot dispose of things one way in the UK and do things in a totally different way in Bangladesh,' said Rizwana Hasan. 'The Western world is using Bangladesh as its dumping ground and using poverty as an excuse.'

Andrew Hickman is a freelance journalist

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