The infamous oil tanker Exxon Valdez is almost completely gone, most of it having already been recycled in Indias voracious steel mills. But its dismantling on a beach in India has once again highlighted the dangers, both environmental and physical, associated with the booming ship-breaking industry.
In about two more weeks, there will be nothing left of the former oil tanker, which in 1989 was responsible for the largest oil spill ever in the United States, leaking more than 41 million liters (10.8 million gallons) of crude oil into Alaska’s Prince William Sound. After the accident, the Exxon Valdez was converted into an ore carrier, and it was most recently renamed the Oriental N. Priya Blue, an Indian scrapping and salvage company, bought the freighter last spring for $16 million (€11.9 million), solely for the purpose of scrapping it.
On Aug. 2, the ship was grounded at high tide on the beach at Alang. There, at the world’s largest graveyard for ships, more than 300 workers are being paid a few rupees a day to dismantle the vessel.
There was a great outcry when it was revealed that Alang was to be the notorious ship’s final resting place. Although it does not contain more toxic materials than other ships, environmentalists took advantage of the former tanker’s prominence to file a lawsuit at India’s Supreme Court to block its import. It was unsuccessful.
But the trial brought to light, once again, the catastrophic conditions at many low-wage shipyards in South Asia, where old ships are being scrapped and gutted. In October, six workers died in a fire in Alang as they were dismantling the oil tanker Union Brave on the beach. One of the workers had struck a pipe with his blowtorch that still contained oil.In Pakistan, more than 20 shipyard workers died and more than 150 were injured in 2011. And in Alang alone, 173 workers have died in more than 170 shipyards since 2001, killed by falling steel parts or burned to death in explosions. Workers are sometimes barefoot as they climb over the ships, and toxic waste is often incinerated on the beach.