The fine, but unlucky Exxon Valdez, born in the shipyards of NASSCO has finally reached its graveyard. After the disaster in 1989 it was refitted and pottered around until Exxon sold it in 2008 to a Chinese firm. The new owners promptly renamed it euphoniously as the Dong Fang Ocean. Unfortunately, the Exxon Valdez bad luck hit its new owners as the Dong Fang Ocean collided at sea in 2010, suffering extensive damage.
Acquired by various scrap merchants, it was tossed around for some time, acquiring a new name in the process - the Oriental Nicety, to be planned for scrapping in our world famous facility of Alang. Our local environmental groups fought a long battle in our Supreme Court to stall the scrapping, claiming possible injuries to workers. But they were defeated. The Oriental Nicety was finally driven up the beach some weeks ago, not without a little drama.
The ship responsible for one of history's worst environment disasters -- the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill off Alaska – rumbled on to the tide-flooded Alang ship recycling yard in Gujarat at exactly 4 pm on Thursday, never to sail again.
Neatly positioned behind two, orange-coloured chemical tankers a third each of it's size, the vessel dropped anchor five minutes later and cut it's engine within another five.
As the high tide dropped back sometime afterwards, it's 15-member crew walked ashore after three days short of four months since they boarded the vessel on it's uncertain last voyage.
The ill-fated vessel, however, almost maintained it's luck till the end.
Originally scheduled to beach on Wednesday afternoon, it was postponed because the ship's anchor got stuck in the mud just two nautical miles offshore, where it was stationed the previous evening.
So what next? Well, the Alang shipbreaking works has acquired a cool-looking website, explaining why we should be doing this breaking job for a ship constructed in the USA. You see, we, together with our neighbours are in the competitive forefront of the shipbreaking "industry". And why is this? Well, shipbreaking is nasty, dangerous work - and someone's got to do it. There's a Canadian documentary on Alang which I haven't located yet, but this is a nice documentary of the ships being cut apart with blowtorches, skilfully, almost casually, and nary a hard hat on view.
But of course shipbreaking is not for the faint of heart.
"On average, one worker dies in the yards a week and every day a worker is injured. It seems like nobody really cares. Workers are easily replaceable to the yard owners: if one is lost they know another 10 are waiting to replace him. The government collects the taxes and turns a blind eye," says Muhammed Shahin, an officer with local watchdog group Young Power in Social Action.
"Explosions of leftover gas and fumes in the tanks are the prime cause of accidents in the yards," he says. Other accidents are caused by falls – because the men are not given safety harnesses – or workers being crushed by falling beams or plates, or electrocuted.
According to the YPSA, most workers wear no protective gear and many work barefoot. "There is hardly any testing system for the use of cranes, lifting machinery or a motorised pulley. The yards re-use ropes and chains recovered from the broken ships without testing their strength. Fires, gas explosions, falling steel plates, exposure to poisons from bunker oil, lubricants, paints and cargo slop have left thousands with respiratory diseases," says Shahin.
So why do we carry on? Its big business.
When the rusty, old supertanker Lara 1 reached Bangladesh two weeks ago, the captain stoked up its engines for the last time and rammed it as far up the beach at Chittagong as possible. The 70-metre tall, 400-metre long iron colossus now squats in the mud in the Rising Steel ship breaking yard, waiting to be picked over by an army of young men risking their lives for little more than £1 a day.
Beyond it, stretched along 12 miles of what just a decade ago was a pristine sandy beach, ore carriers, container ships, gas tankers, cruise liners and cargo ships of every size and description are being dismantled by hand in 140 similar yards. Every year more than 250 redundant ships, many from Britain and Europe, come here to be broken up.
It will take gangs of oxyacetylene cutters nearly six months to dismember the 42,000-tonne Lara 1. In the first week, say its owners, oils, toxic sludges and other waste will be pumped out, parts of the bow and some bulkheads will be removed and the recycling will start. The cable, the steel, the generators, funnels, propellers, lifeboats, companionways, sinks, toilets, even the lightbulbs and every nut and bolt of the Lara 1 will be sold on the Bangladesh market, to be turned into construction materials, girders, metal sheets and furniture. The sheet metal will be used for riverboats and coastal craft.
"Every bit of this ship will be recycled, reused and resold. Nothing will go to waste. This ship will help build Bangladesh. We dismantle 2.5m tonnes of steel a year from Chittagong, but we need four million tonnes to keep growing," says Hefazatur Rahman, chairman of the Mostafa group of industries, which paid $20m to buy the Lara 1 for scrap, and could make $10m profit if world steel prices rise in the next year.
What is certain is that shipbreaking has become essential to Bangladesh's breakneck industrial growth. Apart from providing nearly half the steel the country of 160 million people uses a year, the government collects £70m in revenue from an industry that employs more than 20,000 people directly and as many indirectly.
And back to the Exxon Valdez - Oriental Nicety. A possibly drunk skipper had caused one of the the world's largest oil spills. That, providentially, led to regulations, changes, improvements.
Oddly, the net impact of the catastrophe may have been positive. In 1990, the United States passed the Oil Pollution Act (OPA): a powerful piece of legislation that required oil tankers in US waters to have double hulls. It also boosted the government's ability to respond to spills; provided up to US$1 billion to deal with individual accidents; increased penalties for oil companies responsible for spills; and required businesses to draw up exhaustive plans for handling spills.
But now, 500 men will be working for 4 months to cut it up. And because we have learned little, and care less, the Exxon Valdez will continue to extract a toll until its final gasp.
One worker a day, on average, dies on the job, some from explosions or falls, but many will contract cancers caused by asbestos, PCBs and other toxic substances.