An ocean of misery at the end
by Jim Puckett, Baltimore Sun
25 August 2006 (Seattle) –
One would think that the world's third-largest vacation cruise company would know enough to avoid exploiting and endangering the lives of some of the world's most desperate, impoverished workers. Indeed, the Web site of Star Cruises Ltd and its subsidiary, Norwegian Cruise Lines - with operations around the globe relying heavily on cross-cultural tourism, exotic locations and pristine environments - brags of a "World-Class Brand" and cites numerous awards, some for safety.
However, the company, despite pleadings from environmental, human rights and public health activists around the world, has refused to act to prevent its former flag ship, the SS Norway, from being featured in one of the world's remaining occupational horror shows: the breaking of asbestos and PCB-laden ships on the beaches of South Asia.
Today, due in large part to a callous, singularly bottom-line-minded shipping industry, the statement "a ship a day, a death a day" still rings ugly and true for those in the South Asian ship-scrap beaches of India, Bangladesh and Pakistan trying to eke out a living by breaking monster ships with hand tools and without adequate protective equipment. Death can come suddenly, from the crush of a falling steel plate or by being blown to bits when cutting torches set off residual fuels. Or, it might be the slow-motion horror of cancer from asbestos and hazardous chemicals such as PCBs and heavy metals.
The Norway (formerly SS France) was the pride of Norwegian Cruise Lines' fleet after it refurbished the aging liner at the cost of $100 million in 1979. It enjoyed the nickname of "Grand Dame of the Caribbean." But on May 25, 2003, in Miami, the boiler exploded, killing eight crew members. After the accident, the vessel was towed to Germany, where NCL announced its intent to repair the ship. However, the cost of rebuilding the boiler became too expensive, and NCL looked at alternatives, announcing that the vessel would be taken out of its active fleet in 2004.
During this period, buyers inspected the vessel and found asbestos contamination in several decks of the vessel, as well as PCBs and other hazardous contamination. NCL knew any reputable buyer seeking further use of the vessel would demand that the costs of decontaminating the poisons be deducted from the sales price. And these costs would be expensive if done properly in a safe and sophisticated manner. In its 2005 annual report to the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, NCL reported the vessel's value as of the end of 2004 as scrap and did not report the asbestos liabilities - hoping, it would seem, to ignore the toxic nightmare and instead simply try and profit from the inflated global scrap steel market in Asia.
Even after this SEC report, however, it told German authorities the vessel would not be scrapped but rather repaired and turned into a floating hotel and casino.
On this premise, Germany released the Norway and allowed it to be towed to Asia. But now this move is seen as a cynical and deadly ploy to avoid the international law designed to protect workers and environments in developing countries from hazardous wastes.
The U.N. Basel Convention and its waste-export ban, now ratified by 62 countries and implemented as law in Europe, prohibit the export of hazardous wastes such as asbestos and PCB wastes from developed to developing countries, even as part of old ships. Adherence to these rules would have required SCL/NCL to pay for decontamination before export to Asia. But Star Cruises escaped such regulation by claiming the Norway would be reused.
Star Cruises denies any trickery on the part of its subsidiary, but NCL's veracity has proved wanting in the past. NCL has been caught lying to the U.S. government about a long pattern of illegal dumping of bilge waste in U.S. coastal waters and had to admit to a long-term policy of lies and deception to avoid the cost of properly disposing of its polluting bilge waters. It later had to pay a $1 million fine.
Germany allowed the export for refurbishment, and several months later the ship was renamed SS Blue Lady and sold by Star Cruises to a Bangladesh shipbreaker. However, the Bangladesh government refused to allow its importation unless it was first decontaminated. Star Cruises then authorized the sale to an Indian shipbreaker.
Today the former SS Norway lies in the mud of the infamous scrapping beaches of Alang in Gujarat state. Despite the pleas of environmental justice activists (and ship lovers) around the world, Star Cruises rushed the ship onto the beach and awaits only a final nod from the Supreme Court of India as to whether scrapping can commence. Most observers believe that only a decision by Star Cruises to take appropriate corporate responsibility can save it or the lives of workers now.
If beaching and breaking are allowed to take place, some of the poorest, most desperate workers of the world will become victims of our luxury vacations. If that sad day comes, at the end of its life, a former floating pleasure palace will become a latter-day plague ship - a vessel of pain and poison. And all this because Star Cruises wants to save a buck. Shame on this brand of "World-Class" greed.
Jim Puckett is coordinator of the Seattle-based toxic trade watchdog group Basel Action Network, a member organization of the NGO Platform on Shipbreaking. His e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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