'Safety risk' in breaking up of Singapore-origin ships

An international coalition of non-governmental organisations raised the flag here on Wednesday about Singapore-origin ships being dismantled at the end of their lives on South Asian beaches, using methods that they say endanger the health and safety of workers and harm the environment.

The NGO Shipbreaking Platform, comprising 20 environmental and human rights groups from 10 countries, won a hard-fought battle when the European Commission (EC) enforced a new law on Dec 30 last year requiring ships bearing the flags of its member nations to be dismantled only in shipyards approved by the European Union.

These are recycling facilities that practise safe and environmentally sound methods of dismantling ships. Vessels that bear European flags will not be able to use "substandard sites as is currently the practice", the EC said, while passing the regulation.

With the new rule minimising the threat of toxins being dumped in South Asia by European-flagged companies, the coalition now wants to train its sights on Asia, its executive director Patrizia Heidegger told The Straits Times on Wednesday on the sidelines of a conference on ship recycling.

"We want ship owners here to dispose of the hazardous waste on their ships in a responsible way, rather than make use of cheap but dangerous practices which would never be allowed in Singapore or in the rest of the developed world," she said.

Once they reach the end of their lives, commercial Singapore-origin ships are usually sold to "cash buyers" who then send them to be broken on the tidal beaches of India, Bangladesh and Pakistan, largely by unskilled workers.

"The ships contain toxins such as asbestos and lead and little care is given to worker safety or protection of the environment," said Ms Heidegger.

The coalition says it has received reports on around 25 deaths in ship-breaking yards in Bangladesh alone over the past year.

In the latest incident reported last month, a worker was killed by a falling steel plate while dismantling a ship owned by a Singapore company.

Toxins are a major worry. Statistics on Asian-flagged ships are hard to come by, but the European Commission estimates that at least 40,000 tonnes of toxins (including 3,000 tonnes of asbestos) on board end-of-life vessels are exported each year to South Asia from the EU alone.

Barring EU, the top countries from where ships are sent to hazardous ship-breaking beaches are India, China and Singapore, charged Ms Heidegger.

Glory Ship Management, Neptune Orient Lines (NOL) and Raffles Shipping were the top three Singapore companies sending ships to South Asian yards.

"They could use cleaner and safer facilities elsewhere but they don't," said Ms Heidegger.

A spokesman for Neptune Orient Lines said that for end-of-life vessels, NOL has a policy of working with buyers who hold ISO certifications for safe handling and disposal of hazardous materials.

"These buyers have a track record of working with major carriers, and have demonstrated best practices in ship demolition," she said.

Glory Ship Management and Raffles Shipping did not respond by press time.

Meanwhile, Wirana Shipping Corporation, a leading Singapore-based cash buyer of ships, said shipyards it sends its ships to in the sub-continent had cleaned up their act considerably in recent years.

Workers, for instance, now have protective safety gear, better living conditions and medical facilities, and toxins are handled according to national guidelines, said the company's chief executive Rakesh Khetan.

"The shipyards are mindful that they need to upgrade to meet EU standards," he said. "There have already been many improvements and more will follow."

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