Toxic Trade News / 14 May 2009
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Agreement on Ship Recycling Wins Wide Support
by Keith Bradsher, The New York Times
14 May 2009 (Hong Kong) – After more than five years of negotiations, delegates from 64 countries reached broad consensus here Thursday on a new international agreement regulating the recycling of ships. They scheduled a final meeting Friday to approve and sign the pact.

The dismantling of ships, so that their steel and other materials can be sold as scrap, is often done on or near beaches in poor countries, notably India and Bangladesh. Both nations have pledged to improve working conditions and environmental practices. But labor advocates contend that the process still kills and maims many workers each year and results in the contamination of shorelines with asbestos, oily waste, toxic paint and other dangerous materials.

The new agreement, the International Convention for the Safe and Environmentally Sound Recycling of Ships, requires all vessels to carry detailed, regularly updated inventories of hazardous materials throughout their years of service, and for this information to be provided to recycling facilities. The convention calls for workers at these centers to be equipped with a wide range of protective gear, for the centers to have disposal procedures for hazardous materials and for emergency response plans to be prepared.

But the pact does not require that hazardous materials be removed by specially trained workers following Western safety practices before the rest of the vessel can be cut apart — a provision some environmentalists and labor advocates had sought. Enforcement is left to the governments of countries, without an international regulatory agency.

A wide range of countries endorsed the pact Thursday, including European nations that have pressed for tougher standards to protect workers in poor countries and limit coastal pollution.

“We are trying to stipulate certain high standard levels,” said Anna Petersson, the head of the environment section of Sweden’s Maritime Administration. “You have to start somewhere.”

But environmental groups quickly denounced the draft agreement, negotiated under the auspices of the United Nations’ International Maritime Organization, as weaker than other global environmental pacts.

Jim Puckett, the executive director of the Basel Action Network in Seattle, came to Hong Kong for the final drafting session this week. He complained that the agreement would not entirely ban the practice of dismantling ships on beaches instead of in dockyards.

“This is the most unsustainable and irresponsible practice that takes place in waste management today,” he said.

Delegates cautioned that it was still possible that the agreement would fall apart at the last moment, but they said that was very unlikely. “We expect an agreement tomorrow,” said Manuel Noriega Romero, a Spanish delegate.

Charles V. Darr, the U.S. Coast Guard lawyer who is the chairman of the drafting committee, one of the two main committees at the meeting, said, “I would be extremely surprised and disappointed if this diplomatic conference fails to produce and adopt a convention.”

The United States and Europe still have ship recycling industries that want tougher standards imposed on their competitors in poor countries. But dismantling ships is a labor-intensive activity that is a huge employer in developing nations.

Faced with an enormous glut of ships because of the current economic downturn, shipping companies are trying to sell more of them for scrap and have been hostile to rules that would drive up the cost considerably.

To enter into force worldwide, any agreement must be ratified by a large number of countries as well as by nations that have registered a large percentage of the world’s shipping tonnage. The exact formula for how many countries must ratify the agreement, and what percentage of global shipping tonnage flies these countries’ flags, was the last detail under discussion Thursday. But delegates from five countries representing different blocs at the conference said during separate interviews that a consensus was quickly forming on the ratification formula. They predicted no obstacles to a signing ceremony Friday.

The shipping industry has allied itself with countries that register large numbers of ships. Capt. David J.F. Burns, the chief delegate from the Marshall Islands, which has the world’s fourth-largest registry of ships after Panama, Liberia and the Bahamas, said that he wanted an agreement that “is not possibly too onerous — you want something that is practical, and can be implemented in a reasonable period of time.”

Arthur Bowring, the managing director of the Hong Kong Shipowners Association, endorsed the agreement here and said that “you can’t expect them in Bangladesh to build brand new docks.”

Even when ships are beached, he said, “there are ways to make it environmentally friendly.”

But Mr. Puckett said, “The principle of the Basel Convention has been completely undermined,” referring to a pact banning the shipment of hazardous waste from industrialized countries to poor ones. He also criticized the draft agreement for not requiring shipyards to use less hazardous materials in building ships whenever substitutes for more toxic materials are available; instead, the agreement reinforces existing bans on the use of the most toxic materials, like asbestos.

Mr. Puckett said while he did not believe the pact should be ratified, he would not campaign against it. Instead, environmentalists may start organizing consumer boycotts of products shipped by companies that send worn-out vessels to recycling centers that continue to pollute, he said.

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