Victory Declared as Major Toxic Ship Exporter Forced to Pay Penalties
Activists Warn of Future Exports for Dumping on South Asian Beaches in absence of Government Coordination
The toxic trade watchdog group Basel Action Network (BAN) declared victory today after a U.S business involved in sending hundreds of ships to the infamous shipbreaking beaches of Bangladesh and India was forced to pay $518,500 and certify that they would not undertake such actions again. BAN warned, however, that there was still ample opportunity for unscrupulous operators to exploit loopholes to export very toxic U.S. ships to the South Asian beaches where some of the world's poorest laborers are forced to toil without adequate protections against toxic substances, asbestos, explosions and accidents. BAN is a member organization of the NGO Platform on Shipbreaking, an international coalition seeking to ban beaching and unsustainable ship scrapping.
In February of last year, BAN and the Save the Classic Liners Campaign tipped-off the United States Environmental Protection Agency when they discovered that Global Marketing Systems, Inc. (GMS), headed up by a world famous cash-buyer of obsolete ships, Mr. Anil Sharma, had taken ownership of the SS Oceanic (former SS Independence) and had the old passenger liner towed out of San Francisco Bay with the intent of scrapping the vessel on the beaches of South Asia. BAN demanded that the U.S. government take action to have the ship returned to a U.S. port, but the EPA claimed they lacked the authority to have the ship recalled. Nevertheless, the EPA took legal action against GMS for violations of the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), the law which prohibits the exportation of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), a persistent toxic pollutant used in the paints, insulation and gasketry in older ships.
"While the Oceanic wasn't recalled to the U.S., we're very happy that EPA took their job seriously and that one of the world's leading exporters and exploiters of the infamous shipbreaking beaches of South Asia has finally been held to account," said Jim Puckett, Executive Director of BAN. "While half a million dollars is not much of a financial deterrent for such actors when a single ship can be worth well over 5 million in scrap steel, they are now on notice -- another such export would be a "knowing and willful" criminal violation, and they could find themselves behind bars."
BAN is concerned, however, over the likelihood that U.S. government agencies will continue to ignore each other's rules and continue to facilitate ship dealers being able to circumvent toxics laws such as TSCA by their actions or inaction. For example, a ship broker can simply ask the seller of a ship to ask the Maritime Administration (MARAD) to change the flag of a ship from a U.S. flag to a "flag of convenience" and then make the transaction and export. Because today's ruling only applies to U.S. registered vessels, this creates a major loophole if MARAD allows such re-flagging without notifying EPA. Likewise if the Coast Guard does not promulgate rules or adopt guidelines to refuse or delay "dead ship tow" permits until the necessary inquiries have been made with EPA, violations will continue.
"If MARAD and the Coast Guard were aware and trained about our toxic trade laws, illegal exports like this one could be prevented and we would not be in this unfortunate position of talking about 'the ones that got away,'" said Puckett. "These old ships are often towed and have little value other than for scrap. There has got to be greater cooperation between MARAD, the Coast Guard and EPA to provide an early warning system to prevent these toxic ships from "slipping away."
Soon after EPA initiated its enforcement action against Global and its sister organization Global Shipping LLC, GMS requested a new application to the Maritime Administration seeking approval to sell the vessel but changing the purpose of export from disposal to continued use of the vessel to accommodate labor workers in the Arabian Gulf area. Today, the whereabouts of the Oceanic remains uncertain at this time but so far it has not been seen in the breaking yards.
Gopal Krishna of Ban Asbestos Network of India (BANI), Indian Focal Point, Platform on Shipbreaking says, "In South Asia, ship-breaking takes place in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. The workers in this industry are the most vulnerable workforce in the world with high rate of chemical and asbestos exposure. There is insincerity in safeguarding the occupational health and environmental security. The failure to ensure that all hazardous materials on board the ship are pre-cleaned in the country of export prior to delivery of the ship for dismantling is well known. Massive underground water contamination and marine pollution at Alang, Bhavnagar, Gujarat has remained unaddressed for last 25 years." He adds, currently more than 90 ships are languishing in Alang, the "cashbuyer" who is a US citizen of Indian origin routinely buys ships from all over the world and sends them to the notorious breaking beaches. It is appalling to note that quite unlike the US agencies Gujarat Pollution Control Board, Gujarat Maritime Board and other concerned agencies display a manifest case of dereliction of duty have chosen not take of this "toxic time bomb" for the labourers, communities and environment of Alang. USEPA filed suit because the export of Polychlorinated Biphenyls (PCBs) is illegal. It is illegal in India too. Under the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs) too it is a prohibited toxic chemical.
The last owner of the SS Oceanic liner was Norwegian Cruise Lines (NCL) owned in turn by Chinese Company Star Cruises. NCL already has a reputation for negligence and evasion of international and national environmental and safety laws. NCL is the same company which dumped toxic ship Blue Lady in Alang by letting its proxy buyers mislead the court that a beached ship is "irreversible", which it was not.
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