India Takes on Hazardous Breakdowns of Foreign Ships

Dismantling ships is a big business in India. Huge vessels are driven headlong onto the shore and taken a part piece by piece. This week, France ordered the return of a decommissioned French warship, carrying at least 45 tons of asbestos, bound for an Indian scrap yard. It poses serious health risks to any workers involved in dismantling it. Steve Inskeep talks to William Langewiesche, author of The Outlaw Sea.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This next story says a lot about where some of the world's hazardous materials go to die. It's the story of a gigantic scrap yard, one of the few in the world where people tear apart giant ocean-going ships. It's hard to do that in Western nations, partly because the ships are full of dangerous materials. So they're sent to India to be dismantled by hand. That was the plan for a French aircraft carrier full of asbestos.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

An Indian court would not allow the Clemenceau into the scrap yard until it decided whether the pollutants would be a hazard to workers. So French president Jacques Chirac has ordered the decommissioned carrier back to France.

To learn more about these scrap yards, we've called William Langewiesche, who has written about them in his book The Outlaw Sea. He's on the phone. Welcome to the program.

Mr. WILLIAM LANGEWIESCHE (Author, The Outlaw Sea): Thank you for having me.

INSKEEP: You stood on the beach by one of these Indian scrap yards, a giant scrap yard. Can you just describe the process? When a ship is ready to be torn up, what do people do?

Mr. LANGEWIESCHE: Well, the ship stands off-shore, it then is steamed in to the assigned plot for the tearing apart. It's steamed in at full speed, its last great rush. And it runs aground, nose first.

At that point, the really striking impression is how big this ship is. These are very, very big machines, especially when they sort of emerge from the water this way.

INSKEEP: Nobody has bothered to spend money on a dry dock. They just smash the ship as far up on the beach as they can get it?

Mr. LANGEWIESCHE: That's exactly right. And there's really no need for a dry dock. These are beaches, which, because of their natural inclination, work perfectly well this way.

INSKEEP: And then what happens?

Mr. LANGEWIESCHE: And then swarms, hundreds of very low-paid Indian workers start tearing it apart. And they start immediately, I mean within minutes it starts. The crew gets off the ship, wading through the water, and the workers start climbing up with ladders and ropes and start cutting it apart, and banging and crow-barring it apart. And large pieces begin to drop into the shallow waters.

As the ship is lightened, they also winch the hull farther and farther up on the beach. The process takes several months.

INSKEEP: I'm trying to imagine what this must look like over time. It must almost look like the ship is being eaten.

Mr. LANGEWIESCHE: Yeah. I mean the first thing to say is that the group of so many ships, where you have a hundred ships or more on a beach stretching several miles, is one of the most amazing sights in the world today. And then as the ships are eaten up, you see the insides. I mean, they're cut in two and the innards are exposed and finally you see the last of the sad remnants, typically the stern of the ship, just before it disappears entirely.

INSKEEP: Where's it all go, all the metal?

Mr. LANGEWIESCHE: It goes to local re-rolling mills, local small steel mills, which are very, very tough places. They're hot and extremely dangerous and dirty, where the steel is made into rebar for the construction of new houses and apartments all through India.

INSKEEP: Now, part of the reason the ships go there is because there's a market for the steel. Part of the reason is also that it is hard to get away with dismantling these ships cheaply, given the environmental regulations in the West. Are there strong environmental regulations at all in India?

Mr. LANGEWIESCHE: There are environmental regulations. It's that they're not being enforced. And that's of course the standard all through most of the world. Rare is the country that enforces its laws, and especially if those laws are environmental laws.

We're talking about a part of India here which is very poor. People who are working in the ship yards come from miles around and manage to make a living, a very modest living. They also take enormous risks, they fall. Much more immediate than toxicity, they simply fall and are killed that way. There are explosions which kill them, they are burned, and also of course they're in some cases probably slowly poisoned, and they know that. That's the point. I mean they're perfectly aware of this. But people make hard choices all through the world.

INSKEEP: Well now, given what the workers normally handle, is it surprising at all that this French aircraft carrier would actually be turned away because of environmental concerns?

Mr. LANGEWIESCHE: Well, this became an entirely political story. This is a lot of posing going on by various groups and national governments. The reality underlying it is the business will continue. And a few high visibility cases like the Clemenseau, then, well, okay, it's turned back. It's of no great significance to the industry, whether in India or in the shipping industry worldwide.

INSKEEP: We've been talking to William Langewiesche. He's author of The Outlaw Sea. Thanks very much.

Mr. LANGEWIESCHE: Thank you.

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