Ctg scrap ship gas leak wreaks havoc

June 9, 2004

Toxic gas spews out of the scrap ship GAZ MED to spread several kilometres Toxic gas spews out of the scrap ship GAZ MED to spread several kilometres along the coast after a part of the vessel was cut open at Foyjun Shipbreaking Yard at Jahanabad .A morning toxic gas leak from a scrap ship made hundreds of people ill and forced many others out of their homes in Sitakunda in Chittagong on Monday. A ship-cutting contractor died apparently from the gas emission that exposed about 5,000 people to serious health risks as the colourless pungent gas was spotted spewing from the vessel, GAZ MED, in Jahanabad at about 11:00am. Witnesses said the gas cloud spread several kilometres along the coast and reached up to Dhaka-Chittagong Highway after one of the three liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) containers on the vessel was cut open.

The Panama-flagged ship was beached on May 31 for dismantling at Foyjun Shipbreaking Yard. The yard is close to Silvia Shipbreaking Yard that invokes the memory of a poisonous gas emission that withered plants and exposed hundreds of people in 1km to serious health risks on September 15 last year.

Villagers of Jahanabad and Kadam Rasul said many women and children threw up after inhaling the gas that filled the air. Chunnu Mia, 42, said his two children were in bed until yesterday after vomiting. Two other children Emran, 10, and Irshad, 3, complained of nausea. Nuru Mia, 52, said his family left home and returned only after rain apparently minimised the impact of toxicity.

"It became difficult to stay home when a third LPG tank was cut open sending gas gushing out," a shipyard worker said. "The other two tanks were sunk in the sea for sludge or chemical remains inside to wash away. The tanks will be retrieved after they become danger-free."

Unregulated ship-breaking industry

Recipe for human and environmental disaster Once again the people and the environment in Chittagong are exposed to toxic hazards emanating from a ship-breaking yard. Only last year, a similar incident in the same area affected animal and plant life. In June 2000 as many as forty workers were killed in two separate incidents of fire in ships that were being dismantled.

As per reports, at present, as many as 60-80 large ships are dismantled, in as many as 32 ship-breaking yards every year, but none has ever been regulated and most of them fall short, in many respects, of national and international standards.

There are several reasons why such accidents occur. First, most of the ships that are now being sold out as scraps are of the 70s vintage in which large amounts of toxic substances like asbestos, paints containing cadmium, etc were used. Second, these are not decontaminated as per regulations before being sold out as ships-for-scrap. Third, there is lack of proper equipment and safety in these yards. Lastly, there is a lack of effective checks to ensure that the workers as well as the environment are not exposed to potential hazards that unregulated ship-breaking might bring upon.

Admittedly, over the past thirty years the ship-breaking industry has come to provide jobs for as many as thirty thousand people in our coastal belt, apart from supplying raw material for our steel mills. But one of the reasons the ship-breaking industry in Bangladesh has expanded so fast is the somewhat more stringent regulations in our neighbouring country in this regard and the laxity in following whatever regulations are in place in Bangladesh.

Regrettably, the government has paid little heed to calls by environmentalists and the media to reign in the irregularities, nor has it joined hands with nations that are involved in this trade to demand decontamination by western countries that supply the ships-for-scrap

We feel that the responsibility to ensure the industry's proper development, keeping the safety and security of workers and environment in focus, devolves on both the ship-breakers and the government. The industry cannot be allowed to be a provider as well as a destroyer at the same time. Failure to stem the rot may spell greater disaster in future.
Editorial, Daily Star, June 11, 2004.

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