Pakistani shipbreaking workers exposed to mercury-laden tanker

The Floating Storage and Offloading (FSO) tanker J. NAT has been beached on the shipbreaking shores of Gadani, Pakistan despite clear warnings by Interpol on April 22 that the vessel contains high levels of toxics. For more than a year the vessel has been under the spotlight of enforcement agencies and public watchdogs for its illegal export from Indonesia and the multiple attempts to illegally scrap it in South Asia. 

In Bangladesh and India, local authorities banned its entry due to the dangerous presence of hazardous substances in its steel structures, ballast waters, oil slops and oil sludges following alerts by NGOs. In an attempt to conceal the ship’s identity, its name has been changed several times, from J. NAT to RADIANT to CHERISH, and its real-time location concealed. After several months off the radar, the vessel recently reappeared in Mumbai before initiating its final voyage and reached Pakistan on April 21.

Despite the risks linked to the presence of hazardous substances onboard the vessel, workers were instructed to initiate its scrapping at Plot 60 on the Gadani shipbreaking beach. Local media reports that mercury-contaminated oil sludge was removed from the ship and filled in drums for sale, with workers complaining of severe burning, rushes on their hands and face, and breathing difficulties. 

It is further likely that the vessel’s steel is contaminated by mercury, which will release extremely toxic vapors when heated by for example torch-blowers. Exposure to mercury, even at low levels, has been linked to central nervous system damage, kidney and liver impairment, reproductive and developmental disorders, defects in fetuses and learning deficits. 

Dismantling operations of the J. NAT have now been halted by local authorities, and an investigation has been launched. It is not the first time the yard owner, Dewan Rizwan, a former Chairman of the Gadani Shipbreaking Owners Association, has exposed workers to serious risk. At least five workers died in a fire onboard a ship at his yard in January 2017.

The NGO Shipbreaking Platform, Basel Action Network (BAN), European Environmental Bureau (EEB), Nexus3 Foundation, and Zero Mercury Working Group are now urging Pakistani authorities to keep the yard sealed, and call on Indonesian authorities to take back the waste in line with international law. 

“This case is a shocking example of how companies make profits on the backs of vulnerable workers and coastal environments. It is an environmental crime to dodge international laws that ban the trade of hazardous wastes, and the shipping industry has a duty of care to ensure human rights due diligence when selling their obsolete assets,” says Ingvild Jenssen, Executive Director and Founder of the NGO Shipbreaking Platform.

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