International NGO calls for a halt to shipbreaking operation in Union Bay

International NGO calls for a halt to shipbreaking operation in Union Bay
Submitted photo Madeline Dunnett, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
Deep Water Recovery’s site on May 11, 2024.

A global coalition working to raise awareness about harms caused by shipbreaking is calling for a halt to Deep Water Recovery’s (DWR) shipbreaking operations in Union Bay.

On Jan. 11, 2022, Belgium-based nonprofit NGO Shipbreaking Platform published a letter addressed to federal, regional and provincial authorities regarding Deep Water Recovery’s shipbreaking operation. The letter calls for a stop to operations “to protect both the local environment and communities from exposure to further harm.”

The letter was co-signed by Ingvild Jenssen, executive director of the organization, and Jim Puckett, executive director of Basel Action Network. In the letter, Jenssen and Puckett say they do not consider the ways in which Deep Water Recovery breaks apart ships to be sustainable.

“Vessels can only be recycled in a safe and environmentally sound manner at proper industrial sites that ensure a contained environment with impermeable flooring and drainage systems,” the letter says.

It argues that the shipbreaking activities occurring on the DWR site are not contained properly and can pollute the water, air and land. This is because ships contain a variety of contaminants and harmful materials in their floors, insulation, paints, gaskets and fire retardancy materials.

The letter also says the location of DWR’s operation is “alarmingly close to a residential area,” and points out that Baynes Sound is an Ecologically and Biologically Significant Area.

These are areas deemed “worthy of enhanced management and risk aversion,” according to Fisheries and Oceans Canada. They “have been identified through formal scientific assessments as having special biological or ecological significance when compared with the surrounding marine ecosystem.”

Nicola Mulinaris, senior communications and policy advisor for NGO Shipbreaking Platform, has been working for the organization since 2014. In an interview with The Discourse, he said the group was made aware of shipbreaking in Baynes Sound a few years ago and immediately became involved in supporting local residents who oppose the operation.

Mulinaris said it seemed clear to him that these activities shouldn’t be happening in this location.

“Who in their sane mind would allow or license a facility to operate in such an environment to scrap vessels that are hazardous?” he said.

What is the ideal process to dismantle end-of-life vessels?

A 2022 research paper published in Global Environmental Change by researchers from Shandong University, Chinese Academy of Sciences, Shanghai Maritime University and University of Maryland outlines that it can take two to three months to dismantle a ship.

In the process of emptying and cleaning oil tanks, large amounts of oil and wastewater easily leak to coastal areas,” the paper says. “The ship cutting process may produce highly toxic wastes, such as asbestos and glass wool.”

Ships pose an increased environmental risk once they reach end-of-life. The chemicals within them are mostly contained while ships are at sea, but they begin to pose an increased risk to the workers and to the environment once ships are broken apart.

How long vessels live depends on the ship and what it was used for, but the average lifespan of a service vessel is 30 years, according to the research paper.

For Mulinaris, the biggest issue with DWR’s shipbreaking operation is its location and allegedly inadequate containment of pollutants that could be hazardous to people and the environment.

“At all costs, avoid using a natural shore to carry out operations like they are doing right now,” Mulinaris said.

READ PREVIOUS: Letter from B.C. ministers calls for ‘direct and immediate action’ at Union Bay ship breaking facility

Ship dismantling is important. If vessels are left abandoned and not dealt with they can leak pollutants into the surrounding environment, destroy habitat and can pose a danger to other boaters if they are difficult to see. But ship dismantling is also a dangerous process and needs to be done in a way that protects people and the environment.

According to guidelines published by the United Nations Environment Programme and Secretariat of the Basel Convention, ships must undergo some preparatory procedures, such as removing hazardous waste and contaminants including asbestos and other chemicals, before the ships journey to the scrapping yard.

The vessel must also be secured to ensure safe access for workers. The guidelines say loose equipment, such as “fixtures, anchors, chains, engine parts and propellers,” must be removed from the ship before it goes to the scrapping yard.

Once at the yard, the guidelines say the shipbreaking operation must include a contained space where the shipbreaking can take place, as well as workstations that are equipped for removing hazardous waste, areas to store steel and benign material, secured hazardous waste storage and areas to store equipment that has been processed and can be disposed of, reused or recycled.

It also says the scrapping yard must be in close proximity to proper disposal facilities.

The Discourse asked Mark Jurisich about what the company is doing to manage waste.

“What am I doing with the asbestos? Let me ask you a question. What do you think we could be doing? Are you suggesting we’re digging a hole and putting it in the ground?” he said in response. Jurisich did not offer any other specific insights into what DWR is doing to manage waste.

The technique that DWR uses for its shipbreaking operations isn’t ideal either, according to Mulinaris.

Ships brought to the DWR site in Union Bay appear to be sailed onto a tidal beach for workers to cut up the ship — a process called beaching. But Mulinaris said drydocking — when a ship is sailed into a narrow basin or area that is flooded with water and drained once the ship is secured so workers can repair, maintain or recycle it — is the ideal shipbreaking technique.

The Discourse reached out to DWR to ask what method the company uses for ship dismantling, but did not receive an answer by the time of publishing.

“You need proper industrial platforms, you need infrastructure … you need ideally a dry dock in order to perform ship recycling because that’s the best way to contain any type of contamination if it takes place,” Mulinaris said. He noted that other techniques, such as using piers or slipways for the ships to be secured on, can also be sustainable options as long as proper waste management is in place.

Deep Water Recovery director says ships aren’t being dismantled in Union Bay

Mark Jurisich, director of DWR, told The Discourse in an email on May 8, 2024 that what appears to be occurring to the barge in a video is maintenance work, and not ship dismantling.

“What you are actually looking at is the maintenance work that we have been doing recently.  These barges were not being recycled or dismantled. The work also included the removal of the metal/timber side walls so that the barges could be repurposed,” he said.

He also said DWR is in the process of becoming certified under the Hong Kong Convention, which is aimed at ensuring that ships being recycled “do not pose any unnecessary risks to human health, safety and to the environment.”

Canada has not yet ratified the convention, but the Government of Canada says it is “actively assessing the Convention requirements” and that Transport Canada leads a delegation to International Maritime Organization discussions on the convention.

Jurisich also criticized the term shipbreaking.

“This terminology was coined to describe the environmentally unfriendly recycling methods used in India, Bangladesh and other countries in the Indian Ocean,” he said.

The term shipbreaking is not accurate, he said, since the Hong Kong Convention does not use the term and primarily refers to it as ship recycling instead.

Jurisich also criticized NGO Shipbreaking Platform’s involvement in calling for a halt to the site.

“This NGO has never been to our facility and is suggesting that Canada has no regulation or environmental foresight, which is offensive to both the Canadian people and the Canadian government,” he said.

He agreed though, that containment is important.

A dry dock doesn’t make any difference [to] how you do it. A dry dock is no different than a paved surface. So what’s important is containment, that you contain everything that you’re doing,” he said.

NGO Shipbreaking Platform involvement in Canada

Canada’s waste management is complex. In 2022, CBC Fifth Estate reported that multiple Canadian recycling companies shipped illegal, unsorted household trash to developing countries. According to CBC, foreign authorities found that “at least 123 shipping containers” violated international waste export regulations aimed at stopping western countries from dumping their trash in developing countries.

“It’s not surprising to see a global North country exporting pollution, but it’s quite surprising to see a global North country allowing internal pollution,” Mulinaris said.

He added that the only other work NGO Shipbreaking Platform has done in Canada involved the Sir Robert Bonda ferry from Labrador that was sent to a scrapping yard in India. He said this ship was exported illegally from Canada to India, since Canada is a signatory of the Basel Convention, which prohibits signing countries from exporting hazardous waste to countries that have fewer regulations regarding waste.

“We alerted the Canadian Coast Guard and the competent ministries in Canada saying, ‘look, this ship is about to leave, this export is illegal. You have to stop it, you cannot do this. It’s in breach of international law,’” he said.

“Nothing happened. The ship went to the beach. That was one of the few cases where we were linked to Canada.”

He said the issue in Union Bay is the first case that involves the local environment and ecosystem in Canadian communities.

Concerns for local workers and residents

Most of NGO Shipbreaking Platform’s advocacy work involves holding ship owners and countries accountable for sending their ships to unsafe shipbreaking yards, many of which are in South Asia where there are less safety regulations.

In 2016, a worker in Bangladesh died after a steel plate fell on him, and ninemore workers died within the first five months of the same year in the country, according to the Maritime Injury Centre.

It is difficult to know the total number of deaths from shipbreaking accidents. Research by the Young Power in Action Society found that since the 1980s, more than 1,000 workers have diedworkers died in shipbreaking yards in Bangladesh. In India, at least 434 workers died between 1991 and 2012 in shipbreaking yards, according to research from Toxics Watch Alliance, as reported by NGO Shipbreaking Platform.

The work is dangerous, even in places with more stringent regulations. A worker died in Brownsville, Texas in 1995 after falling 30 feet into a tank, according to the Maritime Injury Centre.

In Baynes Sound, the biggest risk shipbreaking poses is to the surrounding environment, but Mulinaris said he is also worried about workers and local residents.

“Asbestos is super carcinogenic,” Mulinaris said. “I’m appalled, basically, and shocked to see that all these things are happening.”

The NGO Shipbreaking Platform website cites studies that flag asbestos as a potential concern for shipbreaking workers who could “have an increased risk of developing asbestos-related diseases and cancer.”

One of the vessels at the DWR site is the Miller Freeman, an end-of-life American fisheries and oceanography research vessel. It caught fire in Seattle in 2013, and residents in the area at the time were concerned about toxic chemicals spewing into the air. The vessel then appears to have ended up in the Fraser River, spotted in New Westminster in 2017 and in Maple Ridge in 2019. After that, it appears to have landed at the Deep Water Recovery site alongside the Surveyor, another former American research ship.

Read more: BC orders a stop to ship-breaking pollution in Union Bay

During its auction sale, the U.S. General Services Administration — a United States government auction site that sells items formerly owned by the United States government — confirmed that the Miller Freeman contains asbestos, identified in “pipe insulation, exhaust breech insulation, 9 X 9 floor tile, wallboard on the main deck and higher in the wallboard in the walk-in cooler.”

The General Services Administration also warned to “not release fibers by cutting, crushing, sanding, or otherwise altering this property.”

Drone footage appears to show that the Miller Freeman has already been partially dismantled.

In a phone interview, The Discourse asked Jurisich what DWR does regarding asbestos abatement, and if the company is considering doing anything in order to make the scrapping yard more sustainable.

“What part of what I’m doing would you suggest is not sustainable?” he said in response.

“Don’t you think that Environment Canada, the Canadian Coast Guard, Department of Fisheries and Oceans … have some well educated people that might be coming to my site to see what’s going on?”

He also noted that due to the history of coal mining in Union Bay, the area was already contaminated.

But Mulinaris said that is just an excuse, and that government agencies should shut down the site instead of simply warning DWR to stop polluting the area and asking the company to track its pollution.

“So you’re allowing … potential risky activities to take place and endangering local communities, for what?” Mulinaris said. “For a couple of barges [that are] super toxic that somebody wanted to import to make a bit of money? It’s crazy.”

By Madeline Dunnett, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Discourse

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