Mendeleev beaches: shipbreaking and the spilling of copper, cobalt, manganese, lead, cadmium, nickel, zinc and mercury

(c) Amit Dave

 

The shipbreaking yards in Alang and Sosiya take up kilometres of beach along the Gulf of Khambhat, where the Arabian Sea cuts deep into the state of Gujarat. A big, blue banner welcomes visitors who enter the Alang-Sosiya Ship Recycling Yard, but it is a welcome that is quickly revealed to be conditional.

Journalists, academics and foreigners can in general only enter with permission from officials in Gandhinagar, Gujarat’s capital. The procedure can take months or longer and in the rare instances where permission is granted it comes with many restrictions limiting access. Without that green light from Gandhinagar, visiting the shipbreaking yards is only possible by circumventing the Gujarat Maritime Board checkpoint, persuading a yard owner to give his go-ahead or having an extremely well-connected liaison who can introduce you.

I have that well-connected liaison, who knows how to convince the yard owner, and who finds – by trial and a few mistakes – the backroad that brings us to the beach without passing the GMB checkpoint. I begin my visit with the Shree Ram yard supervisor in plots 78 and 81, a site that was visited and inspected by the DNV GL classification society for the European Commission. Because a vessel was being towed closer to a makeshift quay, the supervisor suggested we drive over to the RK Unit II on plot V-7 in Sosiya, a yard that is also operated by Shree Ram.

At superficial glance, these yards seem well organised; they are equipped with concrete floors for secondary cutting. They have cranes that are able to grab onto ship parts before they fall down to the beach and waste collection spaces for oil and other toxic substances. I nonetheless spot a part of an Evergreen ship, a Taiwan-based shipping company, in the water during my visit. Partially submerged because of the high tide, its presence suggests that ship pieces are still falling to the beach in this yard too.

Making cut-off steel slabs fall to the ground is called the gravity method in shipbreaking parlance. These large steel pieces are supposed to be picked up by cranes and deposited on a hard and impermeable floor so they can be cut up further into transportable pieces. The fact that these slabs keep landing on the beach, even in a yard that is trying to obtain a highly coveted European certification, shows how incredibly difficult it is to adopt a clean, EU-proof shipbreaking practice on beaches.

Still, that is the challenge. Because one of the key differences between the Hong Kong Convention (HKC) and the EU Ship Recycling Regulation (SRR), which will become applicable next year, is precisely that the former allows the gravity method while the latter doesn’t. The EU wants to prohibit this shipbreaking method for many reasons. It is dangerous for workers and harmful to the environment. The incredible impact of falling tonnes of steel combined with the process of cutting steel using extremely high-temperature gas flames causes a lot of often toxic paints to be released into the sea and soil. The ships are broken during low-tide and all the oil residues, heavy metals and toxic substances that aren’t cleaned up before the high-tide emerges the ship are spread across the entire maritime environment by the ebbs and flows.

Even the Gujarat Maritime Board seems to understand the urgency of the issue. In the summer of 2017, the GMB notified the local SRIA shipbreaking industry association that every yard owner would have to install impermeable floors on the beaches they used and rented by 30 July 2018. The letter explained the new requirements by explicitly referring to the HKC, before telling owners that the floors had to be certified by “a reputed classification society”.

Yards that didn’t comply would face swift repercussions, the board warned. “Beyond this timeline, no ship shall be allowed to be beached,” it said. Since I was denied access by the GMB, I can’t inspect all the yards but I certainly see ones that lack even minimal flooring.

A huge environmental burden

Although some have greeted the HKC as the incentive the industry needs to upgrade its yards and practices, Gopal Krishna, representative of Toxics Watch, says it may create a false image of progress. “[I am] disappointed by the way the EU has abandoned its position on Ban Amendment and Basel Convention, although the latter is the only law which governs end-of-life ships,” he says in written answers to my questions. “The EU has ended up endorsing a regressive unborn treaty like Hong Kong Convention which is anti-labour and anti-environment. It facilitates ship owners to escape their decontamination cost and environmental and occupational health cost.”

It is hard to find someone who’s willing to make the ecological consequences of shipbreaking for local beaches their number-one priority, either in Alang or the district capital Bhavnagar. Dr Geetanjoy, the Tata Institute professor, attributes the lack of environmental awareness to the fact that the local community, by and large, no longer depends on the natural maritime environment for its livelihood. “Fisherfolk left or turned themselves into workers for the larger economy that grew out of and around shipbreaking,” he says.

To make matters worse, there is a dire lack of research into the state of fish populations, groundwater, air quality and noise pollution in the region, he explains. “The government makes it all but impossible to work independently in Alang, even for Indian researchers. That makes you wonder: What is it that needs to be hidden? Which interests need to be protected so desperately?”

Still, it’s not that there has been no research at all into the environmental impact of shipbreaking on beaches in Alang and Sosiya, or that research findings have been ambiguous. In June 2016, the EU Directorate-General for Environment published a thematic issue of its Science for Environment Policy weekly news alert that was focused on reducing the human and environmental impacts of ship recycling. The issue provided an overview of several studies, one of which clearly showed just how heavily the Alang-Sosiya natural environment has been polluted by copper, cobalt, manganese, lead, cadmium, nickel, zinc and mercury.

A 2001 study mentioned in the thematic issue found that mercury levels in Alang were 15,500% higher than at a control site. For petroleum hydrocarbons, the found levels were 16,973% higher. The researchers also found very severe bacterial pollution and distortions, with for example 349% more E. coli and 394% more E. faecalis than at control sites. These bacterial distortions are linked to very elevated metal levels in the water and decreased levels of salt, and both phenomena are related to the shipbreaking yards on local beaches. This bacteriological pollution was also confirmed in a more recent 2014 study. Yet another 2006 study found that 40 to 50 % of the pollution caused by shipbreaking in the Alang region is plastic based. This plastic will end up in the food chains of the local population and that further afield, making this a long-term problem.

In 2015, the maritime environmental consultancy Litehauz prepared a report about the environmental impact of shipbreaking on beaches for Maersk, the world’s largest container shipping company. The Danish company had just decided to return to Indian beaches to scrap its end-of-life vessels. Their report in large part drew on the same research that would make up the bulk of the EU Directorate-General news alert issue a year later.

In its review, Litehauz stresses that the practice of breaking ships open in intertidal zones causes most of the pollution as it inevitably brings the ocean water into contact with oil residues and other polluting substances in the ship tanks or other ship parts. During high tide the ship is partially underwater, making it very hard to prevent the release of hazardous substances into the environment. With tidal ranges of up to 12m in India, this problem is much more acute and difficult to address there than in Turkey, where tidal ranges are close to zero.  

The Litehauz review also highlighted another problem – the enormous amounts of steel that melt into the environment when the hull is cut up with high temperature gas flames. The study estimates that breaking a ship of 10,000 light displacement tonnage (LDT) results in no less than 120 tonnes of steel melting into the environment. In the same process, about two to three tonnes of paint are burnt in open air. Even at the upgraded yards applying for EU recognition, all of this activity takes places on the beach, making it impossible to prevent the polluting substances from spilling onto the beach and into the ocean.

Blind and deaf governments

The findings of the Litehauz report did not stop Danish container shipping giant Maersk from reversing its practice of not beaching ships and returning to the beach yards; nor have they kept big shipping companies like MSC and CMB from continuing to use beaches while simultaneously making lofty statements in their sustainability reports. Maersk even used to claim that its vessels were broken according to the high standards adopted by the company in 2015 – until the Danish watchdog group DanWatch proved otherwise in an undercover research investigation.

Although Maersk commissioned a new report in 2017, it has provided little information about its results. According to one press release put out by the company, most of the examined 18 substances stayed below critical levels – except for oil residues, metals and TBT (a now banned substance that was used in anti-fouling paints in the past). Maersk added that all of its own vessels are now TBT-free though it remained mute on the ecological impact of the new paints currently being used.

Neither of the reports commissioned by Maersk addressed what one of Bhavnagar’s best journalists has called “the major environmental pollution in this industry.” That’s no exaggeration, Pradeep Shukla insists. “The electricity cables that are taken out of the vessels are sold for about 40 rupees per kilo,” he tells me. “Informal sellers then take them out to a field and burn off the coating, so that they can resell pure copper – for 400 rupee per kilo.” He shows me footage he took in a wasteland before he was chased away by copper sellers; it shows black smoke wafting up from fires. In fact, the cold re-rolling of steel – including the oft toxic paint – represents a less visible but much bigger source of air pollution. That industry also operates on a much bigger scale than that of the burning of electricity cables by locals, no matter how hazardous that is.

A group of scientists from Norway, Bangladesh and China conducted a thorough study of air pollution in Chittagong’s beaches in 2015 that produced worrying results. They found elevated human health risks that were directly related to the practice of shipbreaking. Since scrapping procedures in Chittagong, Alang and Gadani are largely the same, researchers would probably come up with similar results in Alang-Sosiya, if they were allowed to perform independent research there.

In Mumbai, Dr Geetanjoy warns that the limited environmental progress nonetheless isn’t solely the result of lack of research and a sense of personal responsibility. “It is the utter lack of vision at the level of government, both central and state,” he stresses. “That is unacceptable, since shipbreaking yards do pay taxes and the GMB does have the responsibility to enforce labour and environmental rules. The government could simply decree that anyone breaking environmental laws or regulations will lose his permit to function as a shipbreaking company. It is a simple but I’m sure very effective measure to take,” Dr Geetanjoy says.

The problem is that his recommendations to lawmakers haven’t been heeded in the places where local policies are made. The government’ deafness to environmental concerns is illustrated by the fact that India is capable of building suitable, shipbreaking facilities away from beaches. Built and opened in 1999, the Pipapav yard was constructed to offer an alternative to the polluting yard practices in Alang. Although the yard is located just 100km from Alang, the ships never came.

Some industry actors, however, are taking responsibility. The Norwegian Oil Pension Fund for instance divested from four shipping companies due to their beaching practices in January of this year. “One particular problem with beaching is that shipbreaking takes place when the vessels are standing in mud and sand. As a result, the pollution leaches into the ground and is washed out with the tides,” the company said in a report.

“Even if arrangements were put in place at the beaching sites for the treatment of asbestos and PCBs, for example, the fundamental problem of containing and collecting the pollution would be impossible to resolve. There are better ways of dismantling ships that are readily available to the ship owner, but these are more expensive.” While lawmakers and the shipping industry may readily ignore a professor in Mumbai, it must be harder not to hear the voice of the world’s largest private investor.

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