Thursday September 23, 2021

Where did 1,500 tonnes of mercury-contaminated sludge go?

“The hull of the ship is crystal clear, and the rusted walls suggest that it did not have oil for a couple of years,” commented Balochistan government official Mohammad Khan, as he on Saturday boarded the decommissioned vessel ‘MT Cherish’ allegedly carrying over 1,500 tonnes of toxic waste and beached at Gadani for recycling for a month.

Khan is the head of the environment protection committee that has been investigating the case of the mercury-contaminated ship that reached Pakistan in a dramatic manner, despite the fact that a warning was issued to Islamabad from the Interpol almost a week before its arrival.

He told The News that the claim of hazardous waste was presumably untrue, and his team had obtained samples from the waste oil to ascertain the fact. “There are around 100 blue drums on the yard in which the oil from the ship has been kept. We have taken them in our custody.”

The Balochistan government had launched an inquiry in the case on May 26. Their spokesperson Liaquat Shahwani said that they were intimated by the federal agencies quite late, after the ship had already been cut. “Otherwise we would have looked into it before,” he explained, saying that the inquiry report will be finalised in a “few” days.

The Interpol’s environmental crime unit had communicated an alert to its network at the Federal Investigation Agency on April 22 that a floating storage and offloading (FSO) vessel — ‘Radiant’, formerly known as ‘J.NAT’ — was possibly being towed to Gadani and planning to illegally dispose of 1,500 tonnes of mercury-contaminated oil sludge in contravention of the Basel and Marpol conventions.

It added that in May 2020 the ship was under the name of ‘J.NAT’ and was banned by the Bangladeshi authorities to dock at Chittagong, which has the world’s largest ship recycling yard, and since November 2020 it was anchored at Mumbai after the Indian authorities did not allow it to beach at Alang, which has the world’s second-largest ship-breaking yard.

The Indian and Bangladeshi governments took their caution from a report from the Shipbreaking Platform — a Brussels-based NGO campaigning for “clean and safe recycling off the beach” — that the ship, ex-name ‘Jesslyn Natuna’, having a substantial quantity of hazardous waste, had “illegally” departed from Indonesia in May 2020 in search of her final resting place in South Asia.

The owner of the ship in Pakistan, Rizwan Dewan, denies acknowledging the toxic waste. “I purchased this ship a couple of months ago from a company in Singapore after seeing all its certificates

that declared it fit for recycling,” he said, showing a private laboratory report that found mercury in its sludge at a rate of 150 micrograms per kilogramme. “This is not a toxic level,” asserted Dewan.

He said that his ship reached Karachi from Mumbai on April 25 and went through scrutiny from all the federal agencies, including the Customs and the Maritime Security Agency, before berthing at his ship-breaking yard in Gadani. He also showed a permission letter from the Balochistan’s Environmental Protection Agency allowing the cutting of the ship.

“First of all, I didn’t have any knowledge of this ship being controversial, and secondly, why would I invest my money on something which is not fit for recycling?” he said, adding that he came to know about the Interpol warning on May 8, five days after its dismantling had begun. “We have kept the waste in drums and will dispose of it according to the laws.”

When asked why he would change the name of a ship when it was going for scrapping, he said that it was a routine practice for buyers to change the name of the ship after purchasing it, pointing out that it happened in 99 per cent of the cases. He said of the whole situation that it was a conspiracy hatched by the Bangladeshi and Indian lobbies to divert the ship-breaking work away from Pakistan.

“It’s a labour-intensive industry employing 15,000 to 20,000 people, including 20 to 25 per cent locals of Gadani,” he said, adding that it used to be the largest ship-breaking yard in the world, but its rank slipped down to third after the recycling work had shifted away to neighbouring countries.

He claimed that the mercury level in the oil sludge was not toxic in the light of the parameters explained by the World Health Organisation. “We are convinced that it is not toxic, yet we will fully cooperate with the authorities and dispose of it as they say.”

The lead investigator in the case, Khan, explained that the mercury would exhibit a toxic characteristic if its contamination is more than 200 micrograms per kilogram. He said that the government will trust its own laboratory result, adding that a sample had already been dispatched to the Pakistan Council of Scientific & Industrial Research (PCSIR) for examination.

On the other hand, marine biologist Alia Bano Munshi, who served as the chief scientific officer at the PCSIR, commented that mercury in whatever quantity was hazardous for humans and the environment. She referred to her research on the oil tanker ‘Tasman Spirit’ that had run aground at the Karachi port spilling crude oil, which contained mercury, in the sea. “The residents of the adjoining areas suffered through diseases because of it.”

The News tried to contact the workers who had cleaned the oil off the ship, but none of them were available. The president of the Gadani Ship Breaking Workers Union, Bashir Mehmoodani, said that usually Bengali workers were employed for cleaning oil, but since the news had broken, none of them was seen in Gadani.

Contrary to the claims of the ship owners and the Balochistan government’s inquiry committee, National Trade Union Federation General Secretary Nasir Mansoor suspected foul play in the case. “How come the committee did not see the sludge dumped in the yard openly?”

Mansoor said that due to weak implementation on the law, Pakistan was a favourite destination for the dirty ships to recycle. He said that majority of the vessels broken down in Gadani were oil tankers or floating storage. “You would rarely find a passenger ship or a cargo ship coming here.”

He demanded that a judicial investigation be conducted in the case, exclusive of the authorities that allegedly colluded to dock the ship in Pakistan. “The tests done in Indonesia say that mercury contamination in the sludge of this ship was about 395 milligrammes per kilogramme. What miracle happened in Pakistan that the mercury almost vanished?”

He said that either the sludge was dumped into the sea or it was disposed of illegally in Pakistan. “The report from the Interpol says the waste weighed more than 1,500 tonnes. This is not an amount which could be fit into just 100- or 200-litre drums. The digs in the yard should be opened for the probe.”

The News spoke to a former merchant navy sailor Captain Haseeb to understand how a ship carrying 1,500 tonnes of load reduced it dramatically. He said that Pakistan was infamous as a graveyard of ships with the dirtiest sludge. “Because it is easy to dodge the law here,” he explained.

Haseeb said that sometimes the perpetrators bore holes into the hull of the ship to pump out the sludge into the sea. “The oil flows in the daytime because it is warm, and solidifies at night. This is one malpractice done by ships when they move for dismantling.” He added that in case such ships come under the radar of international authorities, they try to hide themselves by changing their names and flags.

Naida Hakirevic, the editor of the Green Marine section at Offshore Energy, wrote in her November 2020 article that “Almost one-third of the ships sold to South Asia in 2020 changed flag to the registries of Comoros, Gabon, Palau and St. Kitts and Nevis just weeks before hitting the beach.

“As explained, these flags are not typically used during the operational life of ships and offer ‘last voyage registration’ discounts. They are particularly popular with the middlemen scrap-dealers that purchase vessels on cash from ship owners, and are grey- and black-listed due to their poor implementation of international maritime law.”

In the case of the vessel in question, it has changed its name thrice in the past three years, each time when it tried to enter a new country. The 229-metre-long and 37,380-tonne vessel was built in 1983 by Japan, and last served at a gas and oil field in Indonesia, before its decommissioning in 2018.

Kan Matsuzaki, director for shipbuilding and shipbreaking at the IndustriALL Global Union, told The News that “This is unacceptable from trade union point of view. The government and the employer (the yard owner), and ship-owner are simply jeopardising the workers’ lives.”

He added that the stakeholders are always watching the situation. If Gadani would like to have sustainable business in the future, the government and the yard owners must follow the rules of the Hong Kong convention.

“Remember the tragedy of November 1, 2016 in Gadani. The workers are not commodities, but human beings who also have loved ones. Safety and health first! Save workers’ lives! Ratify the Hong Kong convention now.”