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Ship-Breaking Industry Brings Environmental Problems Along with Money - 2004-05-09

Over the past three decades, a massive ship-breaking industry has developed in India and Bangladesh and other countries in South Asia. The industry feeds the region's growing demands for steel, but it also exposes the environment and workers to deadly pollutants.

Along India's west coast in Gujarat state, in the small town of Alang, 35,000 workers dismantle nearly 300 ships every year at the world's largest ship-breaking yard.

In India, ship-breaking has grown into a $7 billion a year industry. Metals such as iron and steel are recovered from old ships and reused in steel mills. Electrical and mechanical parts are removed and recycled. Hulls are cut into metal plates and used in construction projects on roads and bridges.

India's Alang Ship Recycling Yard produces about four millions tons of scrap steel a year, about 10 percent of the country's total steel production.

Ship-recycling yards are also doing a brisk business in neighboring Bangladesh and Pakistan. In Bangladesh, scrap metal from old ships meets more than half the country's steel requirements.

The global market for scrap ships is expected to grow rapidly this year as single-hulled vessels are phased out due to a United Nations mandate.

But the ship-breaking industry is under fire from environmentalists.

The industry moved to India, Bangladesh and Pakistan in the 1970s after developed countries such as Britain shut down their yards when environmental, health and safety rules were tightened.

Environmentalists charge that in South Asia, these ships are taken apart without adequate precautions, dumping dangerous chemicals into the soil and sea, and exposing workers to hazardous pollutants.

Greenpeace activist Ramapati Kumar describes some of the hazards.

"They cut the ship with [their] bare hands," he said. "They do not have any protection whatsoever... They are exposed to toxic substances and they inhale all the toxic fumes throughout the cutting process."

Given such concerns, India imposed tighter safety guidelines last year. But industry watchers say this has only resulted in more ships sailing to Bangladesh and Pakistan, where laws are still lax.

The Indian ship-breaking industry is now fiercely competing with China, which is using old ships to feed its growing appetite for steel.

Indian officials say demand from China has pushed up ship-breaking prices to record highs, making it more difficult to buy old ships at competitive prices.

Authorities in Gujarat state say they hope to boost the Indian industry by modernizing demolition methods while protecting workers at the Alang ship-breaking yard.