Toxic ships

Miranda Kennedy May 26, 2006


MARK AUSTIN THOMAS: A decommissioned Norwegian cruise ship called the Blue Lady is steaming toward India’s west coast today on its final voyage. Unless the Indian Supreme Court says no, that ship will dock in the port town of Alang, where it will be dismantled for scrap. Ship scrapping is an important industry for Alang, but as Miranda Kennedy tells us, it also exposes workers to a host of toxic dangers.

MIRANDA KENNEDY: The stretch of beach at Alang looks like a nightmarish scene from the Industrial age.

Hundreds of men are blowtorching hulks of steel on the tar-stained ground. They’ll spend months breaking apart this dead cargo ship so it can be sold off as scrap.

A team of men, using their bare hands, pull a thick steel rope onto the deck. Most wear helmets, but there’s not a protective suit in sight-even though these old ships are riddled with asbestos and PCBs. Chatri Singh, a scrawny 30-year-old worker, says hardly any of them have any safety training.

CHATRI SINGH: We’ve all left our villages to come here and pull apart the ships. But I have no idea where this ship comes from. All I know is it’s really hard work.

A couple months ago, five workers were killed when a fire broke out after they cut open a pipe still filled with gas. Ahmad Islari is a doctor in the nearby town. He says that’s just par for the course.

AHMAD ISLARI: I have treated so many patients from Alang. There are two main problems that come from Alang, one is burns and the second is injury, minor and major injuries.

Greenpeace estimates that one in four Alang workers will get cancer. But Captain Kiritsin Gohil, the officer in charge of the port, says Alang gives people desperately-needed jobs, even if they only make $3 a day.

KIRITSIN GOHIL: If you think of the labor now, back home, where they come from, where there is abject poverty. So up here at least they’re at least getting three square meals a day and they’re earning enough money to send back to their families.

But maybe not for long. A few years back, when India was the world’s favorite destination for ship scrapping, 40,000 people worked here. There’s only 4,000 left. After an aggressive Greenpeace campaign against shipyard conditions, the government started enforcing labor laws and tightened pollution controls. Gohil says American and European ship owners simply don’t want to have to deal with all of that.

KIRITSIN GOHIL: They are fined very heavily and the work is stopped, maybe even the plot is taken away.

So they’ve found other places to send their decommissioned ships, like Bangladesh and Pakistan. By improving conditions in the shipyard, India may have killed off its industry of burying the world’s dead ships.

In Alang, I’m Miranda Kennedy for Marketplace.

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