Are U.S. shipping companies still sending their clunkers to the toxic scrap yards of South Asia?

Opinions about events beyond our borders.
Sept. 18 2009 7:11 AM

Muddy Waters

Are U.S. shipping companies still sending their clunkers to the toxic scrap yards of South Asia?

A ship-breaking yard. Click image to expand.
A ship-breaking yard

When the 30-year-old cargo ship MV Anders cruised out of Norfolk, Va., at 11 p.m. on Wednesday, Aug. 26, it may have been sailing through one of the largest loopholes in U.S. maritime regulations.

Three weeks earlier, the Anders was a U.S.-flagged vessel called the MV Pfc. James Anderson Jr., named for a young Marine who saved his platoon members' lives by falling on a Viet Cong grenade. It had hauled cargo for the U.S. Navy for more than two decades and was now retiring. The ship's new owners, Star Maritime Corp., had renamed it the Anders, painted over the excess letters on the hull, and raised the flag of its new registry—the Caribbean nation of St. Kitts and Nevis. The Anders left Virginia empty.

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Its 29-year-old sister ship, the MVBonny (formerly the MV 1st Lt. Alex Bonnyman), followed two days later under the same flag and ownership. The Coast Guard listed the ships' next port of call as Santos, Brazil. But environmental groups, trade journals, and industry watchdogs claim the ultimate destination for these aging vessels will be the Dickensian scrap yards of Bangladesh.

The Anders and the Bonny served in the U.S. Navy's Military Sealift Command for 24 years. Stationed at Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean, they delivered military cargo during both Iraq wars, as well as Operation Restore Hope in Somalia. But the Navy never actually owned the ships. They chartered them from Wilmington Trust, which sold them to Star Maritime earlier this summer. When Star Maritime renamed the ships and submitted an application to reflag them under St. Kitts and Nevis registration, environmental groups recognized the telltale signs of vessels about to be scrapped and cried foul.

The Basel Action Network, a Seattle-based environmental group leading the campaign to stop the export of old ships for scrap, monitors old vessels in U.S. waters and alerts the EPA when their owners attempt to recycle them overseas. There are several reliable warning signs. First, a ship is sold to an obscure company (which U.S. ship-breakers call a "Last Voyage Inc."), which is sometimes a subsidiary of a larger company active in the scrapping business. Then it is renamed and registered under another nation's flag before sailing to South Asia.

"It's outrageous that these ships were allowed to sail," says Colby Self, director of BAN's Green Ship Recycling campaign. "In a sense, they were government vessels." But once the ships' contracts had expired, all legal responsibilities lay with their owners.

Most of the world's old ships are sent to die on the shores of India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh. Vessels are beached there at high tide and cut into pieces by teams of poorly paid migrant workers. Heavy equipment and cranes are inoperable on the sand, so workers dismantle the ships by removing large portions, which drop to the beach. They use fire torches to cut through steel hulls—even those of old oil tankers. Dozens of workers die each year from explosions, falling steel, and disease. As for the asbestos, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), tributyltin (TBT), and other toxic materials onboard the old ships, much of it washes out to sea. (PCBs and TBT are persistent organic pollutants that work their way up the marine food chain and damage the nervous systems of large mammals.)

If the Anders and Bonny are headed to Bangladesh, they won't be alone. South Asia's ship-breaking yards are experiencing an ironic boom in the middle of the global recession. Ship owners faced with shrinking cargo volumes are culling their fleets by scrapping old vessels rather than paying for them to sit empty. South Asia's yards, which take advantage of cheap labor, scant regulations, and high regional demand for steel, will buy a vessel for twice the price a U.S. ship-breaker could offer. In Bangladesh, ships like the Anders and Bonny (which are two-and-a-half football fields long and weigh more than 23,000 tons) are worth at least $7 million apiece.

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