The ship that was once known as the Exxon Valdez is in the news once more: this time for potentially exposing ship demolition workers to toxic asbestos.
The Exxon Valdez, which dumped millions of gallons of crude oil into the waters off Alaska in 1989, is currently off the coast of India and scheduled to be dismantled at the Alang shipyard. However, the fact that the ship is laden with asbestos, arsenic, mercury, and other potentially toxic materials is causing environmentalists to move to block the ship’s entry into the shipyard in the western state of Gujarat.
According to some, the ship is no more contaminated than hundreds of other ships that have been dismantled in the shipyards of Alang, where shipbreaking is a large and historic part of the economy. Environmentalists, on the other hand, claim that the ship’s toxic contents present a hazard to workers, and are using the famous ship as a means to strive for better worker safety conditions and laws to enforce them.
According to activist Gopal Krishna of ToxicsWatch Alliance, “The ex-Exxon Valdez is a test case for the robustness of India’s regulatory framework.”
Jim Puckett, head of the Basel Action Network activist group based in Seattle, states that the shipbreaking industry, which has long depended on the most illiterate, cheapest labor in the country, is hoping to “drop the problem on the poor people of India.”
Despite the dangers of this type of work, however, the men employed at the shipyards in question say that they badly need the money this work will bring to their families. According to the Gujarat Maritime Board, more than 400 Alang workers have died since 1983, though some experts claim that this number is closer to 50 workers lost per year. Some of these workers are injured as a result of unsafe work conditions, while some have died from mesothelioma and other asbestos diseases.
According to environmentalists, these poor workers have very little training and even less protection from toxic substances that they encounter, such as asbestos. Many of these workers earn as little as the equivalent of $2.00 per day. While environmentalists feel strongly that these conditions and wages must improve, many of the workers have no choice but to continue with their dangerous jobs and find the protestors a threat to their livelihood.