March 24th 1989, the Exxon Valdez plowed; bow first, into the rocks of Alaska’s Prince William Sound. More than eleven million (11,000,000.00) gallons of crude oil polluted the water before the spill could be contained. Now the dismantling of the vessel threatens to pollute the air with toxic asbestos.
Since her original accident, the tanker was repaired and sent to Europe; underwent several subsequent name changes; became an ore carrier named Dong Fang Ocean that collided with a cargo ship; underwent additional repairs and another name change and finally, with the name Oriental Nicety, has been sold for scrap in India where she waits off the coast to be demolished by the ship breakers at the Alang Shipyard – perhaps re-purposed once again.
Like most ships built during the time of the ex-Exxon Valdez, the ship was constructed using asbestos. The average ship contained several tons of asbestos insulation in the engine room, along the miles of pipe aboard and in the walls and doors that required fireproofing. Generators, boilers and turbines required to power the vessel were all constructed and insulated with asbestos.
Although environmentalists acknowledge that it is likely no MORE toxic than so many other ships recycled at Alang, a petition has been filed with the High Court in the western state of Gujarat to block the entry of the ex-Exxon Valdez pending an onboard inspection for toxic chemicals including asbestos. Perhaps it is just timing or perhaps it is for the notorious reputation of the vessel and the catastrophic event with which it is associated, but many say that the Exxon Valdez is being used as a pawn in the fight for better, safer working conditions for the men working in these yards.
While in the United States we have regulations enforced by such companies as OSHA that specifically detail the required safety precautions for the demolition or salvage of structures, vessels, and vessel sections where asbestos is present; 1915.1001(a)(2), countries such as India have much more lax guidelines. Notwithstanding the minimal safety requirements of India, if the rulings are not favorable, or if the red tape of the legal system becomes intolerable, the ship may be diverted to Bangladesh or Pakistan. These countries also have similarly slack regulations for the shipyard industry, but when even these practically non-existent standards cannot be met, ships are often brought in illegally.
The Coastline is now adorned with about 175 yards that make up a large portion of this billion dollar ship-breaking industry. Alang shipyard has been in operation since 1983. It is the worlds largest ship breaking operation and has broken apart over 5,900 ships. A 2006 study commissioned by India’s Supreme Court found 16% of those ships contained asbestos. Workers typically come from very poor families, are given minimal training and even less safety gear and earn an average of 111 to 388 Indian Rupees per day which is about $2 to $7 US American dollars per day for the hazardous, sometimes lethal, work that they do. When asked why they take this risk, why they do this job, the men in the yards simply say – They need the money.