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Ocean Liner's Final Voyage to Asia Under Scrutiny

A disabled passenger ship being towed across the Pacific Ocean is rekindling debate about how such vessels are scrapped. VOA correspondent Steve Herman reports from New Delhi.

A once glorious ocean liner is finding rough sailing as it is towed across the Pacific, likely en route to South Asia to be dismantled and sold for scrap.

The vessel, formerly the S.S. Independence, is the last U.S.-built ocean liner to sail under the American flag. After being laid up in San Francisco for the past six years it is apparently on a final voyage to India, Pakistan or Bangladesh, the hub of the world's ship-breaking industry.

Environmentalists say the 20,000 ton vessel is on a rogue journey, because it is in breach of U.S. and international laws that prohibit the export of toxic waste.

Jim Puckett is with the toxic trade watchdog group, Basel Action Network, which sounded the alarm to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency after the liner's fog-shrouded departure on February 8 from San Francisco Bay.

"We have basically a fugitive ship being towed," he said. "They have gone dark. They've turned off their satellite beacon after they got word that the EPA was interested in seizing it and testing it for polychlorinated biphenyls, a very toxic persistent organic compound which is illegal to export in any form from the United States."

Independent industry experts do not dispute that a ship of that vintage would contain tons of PCB's in its wiring, gaskets, coolants, lubricants and paint. In addition, they say, it is also likely to hold tons of asbestos insulation.

Lieutenant Marcus Hirschberg of the U.S. Coast Guard Sector Guam says authorities are monitoring the 58-year-old vessel as it heads toward the U.S. island territory of Guam.

"We have heard through Coast Guard Legal (division) that there's a possibility there was a breach of export law," he said. "The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is the lead agency on those regulations and we will work closely with them if there are actions that they need to take. But right now I'm not aware of any course of action that's planned."

The SS Independence was a favorite of celebrities crossing the Atlantic in the final years before ocean travel gave way to the jet set. The Independence later spent years crisscrossing the Hawaiian islands as a cruise ship.

After American Global Lines went bankrupt in 2001, the Independence, built in 1950 at a cost of $50 million, was sold at auction for $4 million to Norwegian Cruise Lines, which later changed the ship's name to Oceanic. That company tells VOA News it sold the Independence last year to a broker who then placed it with "an unknown buyer." But current U.S. government records and those of Lloyds Maritime Intelligence Unit show the ship as still being owned by a Florida-based affiliate of Norwegian Cruise Lines (called California Manufacturing Corporation).

Preservationists in the United States have campaigned for such historic vessels to be preserved as floating museums, but that takes a lot of money. For the owners of such ships the current high prices for metals make scrapping them a more lucrative option.

Officials say any toxic materials on board would only be a general hazard when they are exposed during the ship's demolition.

South Asia's ship-breakers have come under intense international scrutiny in recent years. Scenes of bare-handed and barefoot workers with no protective equipment tearing apart toxic-laden vessels prompted calls for reform in India and elsewhere.

India's Supreme Court ordered stricter regulations on safety and health. The justices demanded adherence to the 1989 Basel Convention on Hazardous Waste and other international agreements banning the import of numerous hazardous substances. A 1995 amendment prohibits developed countries from sending hazardous waste to developing nations, even for recycling.

Jim Puckett of the Basel Action Network says the Indian high court's directives are not being followed.

"Following that ruling, 53 ships have been beached," he noted. "So they're just ignoring the Supreme Court with impunity. As far as international law goes, there is no international law. There are guidelines and they are ignoring them right, left and center."

At the Alang ship-breaking yard in the Indian state of Gujarat, Jay Joshi, a director of Soham Overseas, which purchases vessels for demolition, argues however that his industry has turned a new leaf, is complying with the Indian Supreme Court order and following international guidelines.

"Alang has got the green passport so there is no problem of recycling any kind of vessel," he said. "Most of the breakers have got the ISO (International Standards Organization) certification for safety and environment."

And Joshi says workers in the top Indian ship-breaking port are now supplied with adequate protective wear.

"Safety boots, clothes, masks, helmets and hand gloves - everything has been provided by all the breakers," he said.

In recent years Alang lost substantial business to neighboring Bangladesh, which depends on the industry for its domestic steel and is known to offer higher prices for retiring vessels. Some environmentalists say environmental and safety regulations are more lax in Bangladesh's Chittagong ship-breaking yard.

Pakistan is the third largest ship-breaker, mainly specializing in oil tankers and other large tonnage vessels.

The industry is expecting its fortunes to rise in the years ahead as single-hull oil tankers are phased out under international regulations. Environmentalists say they will monitor South Asia's ship-breakers to ensure they comply with global standards and adequately protect workers.