Breaking the Yards

An environmental crusader fights a deadly, unregulated industry.

More than 20,000 workers a year head to ship yards on the shores of Bangladesh to take apart old tankers by hand. In the process, they expose themselves and their environment to noxious chemicals like asbestos, PCBs, and lead. An estimated one ship worker a week dies in the yard. Environmental lawyer Rizwana Hasan wants to safeguard the industry. She recently won a battle for regulation in Bangladesh's Supreme Court, and was recognized for her efforts with a Goldman Environmental Prize. Outside's MELANIE LIDMAN caught up with the crusader ask how you can help.

What is ship breaking?
After a ship is no longer useful, the owners send it to a ship-breaking yard. Put in front of your eyes a huge ship, and you have to imagine 150-200 people breaking down the huge ship manually in just two months. This is inhumane! The ships are not cleaned, they are filled with asbestos, PCB, iron, lead, arsenic, all sorts of chemicals that the workers break without protection. The Europeans, the Americans, the Japanese, they search for coasts where enforcement of environmental law and labor law is weak. They have chosen our territory because here enforcement is weak. By 2012, we'll have broken more than 2,000 ships on our shores, more than 20 million tons of waste.

What are the environmental hazards associated with ship breaking?
One tanker carries 50 tons of oil residue if it's not pre-cleaned. If all the oil is drained out into the coast, can you imganine what will happen to our coast? Already what has happened is a havoc. All the samples of the air are polluted around the area already. The testing of the water suggests that there is traces of oil in our drinking water. The soil is contaminated.

How are you fighting ship breaking in Bangladesh?
We're using legal methods to approach the problem from two sides: labor rights and the environment. We started working for labor rights in 2004, on one of the Id days, which is like your Christmas. One of my office colleagues phoned me and said he had just got a phone call from the hospital that a laborer from the ship breaking yard was at the hospital. So we rushed to the hospital and we found that the guy was almost dying. Two of the laborers were carrying a metal plate, it slipped and it fell on them. One died instantly and the other was badly injured. The bosses gave the worker some ice, but no medication, nothing. So we paid to start his primary treatment at the hospital, and then we traced the owner of the ship breaking yard to pressure him into paying for the treatment. In 2005 he finally paid. From an environmental standpoint, in 2006, I finally got a ruling from the high court of Bangladesh saying that these ship breaking yards are operating without having the mandatory environmental clearance certificate from the department of the environment. All 36 ship breaking yards were cited.

Do you think these legal rulings in your favor, like the recent ruling that cited all of the ship breaking yards, will be enforceable?
It is not impossible, because of the way the rule is framed. Issueance of environmental certificates and setting compliance standards is doable. Having a committee to monitor the implementation of the courts’ ruling is doable. But, the issue of pre-cleaning, or decontamination outside the territory of Bangladesh, is something where we will face lots of challenges.

Why is pre-cleaning so important?
Pre-cleaning is of vital importance because it means that the majority of the contamination has been removed before a ship enters into a "recycling" yard in Bangladesh. The problem is, who decides at what point the cargo residue has to be removed? By whom? And at whose cost? Because removal releases stuff like PCBs, iron. We don't have the funds to do that safely! The European Union is saying, let's give Bangladesh support to create the structure to get rid of hazardous waste, and keep the shipbreaking industry environmentally friendly. Now if you can make the shipbreaking industry environmentally friendly, why don't you keep the ships in your country instead of sending them to Bangladesh?

How does it feel to have Europe, America and Japan dumping their trash in your backyard?
It is an issue of self-dignity for the country. If Bangladesh compromises on the point of pre-cleaning, that means that the government is allowing the dirty ships to enter Bangladesh. The cost is too high. Just because our people are poor, and just because our country needs iron? To me, it's very diminishing, morally wrong, ethically wrong, intellectually corrupt, and politically it needs to be reviewed.

What will happen to the laborers if the ship breaking yards shut down? Where will they work?
The laborers come from the northern part of Bangladesh and they come from extreme poverty. But they're being exploited--at least one dies per week, according to statistics from Greenpeace that I support. You have to understand that after 7-8 years they lose their ability to work. They're losing their legs. They're losing their hands. Young girls are becoming widows. Kids are becoming orphans. I think the solution to this problem is jhute, a type of fiber that Bangladesh is famous for that can be used to make clothes and any number of things. All of the government-run jhute factories were shut down during the war for independence because the government could not run the industry efficiently. The jhute factories were not polluting the environment, the workers were not inhaling asbestos--today the buildings are standing empty. They closed down the without creating an alternate economic environment. Reopen the jhute factories and you could employ all of these people and more.

So what should Americans do to help out the problem of ship breaking in Bangladesh?
Most Americans are unaware of what is happening with their end-of-life ships. America has not signed the Basil Convention on Transport of Hazardous Waste or climate change protocol. Go and lobby your government so they agree that no ships from America shall enter the territory of India and Bangladesh without being pre-cleaned. Tell your government that we would like to call a spade a spade. American ships, even when they’re owned privately, need to be brought under regulation so they responsibly to deal with end-of-life ships. That responsibility must not be passed on to the shoulder of Bangladesh.

For more on the winners of this years Goldman Environmental Prize, go to goldmanprize.org.

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