Where Old Ships Go to Die, Asbestos Causes Legal Problems

Large sea-going vessels are considered old at age 20, although many survive into their 40s. Eventually, however, all but a few great ships of historical interest wind up at the scrap yard. Often, this is Bangladesh, where there are few regulations governing labor and poverty insures a ready supply of men willing to risk their health and lives for the equivalent of a dollar or two a day. India is another place where old ships are broken up and where overpopulation and culture have conspired to impoverish thousands. However, an Indian court has ruled that all ships scrapped in India must have all toxic materials removed before ships are broken up for scrap. The S.S. Blue Lady began her life as the S.S. France in 1960. At the time, she was the largest cruise ship afloat. The ship was retired during the first global oil crisis in 1974 and sold to a Saudi millionaire, who in turn sold it to Norwegian Cruise Line in 1979. It was then renamed the S.S. Norway. The ship remained in service until an accident in 2003 in which a boiler exploded, killing seven crewmembers and injuring seventeen more. The ship was towed to the German port city of Bremerhaven, where its death sentence was pronounced. The problem was that there was so much asbestos on board that the ship could not legally leave port under the terms of the Basel Convention.

Eventually, the ship was acquired by Star Cruise lines, whose management convinced German authorities that the ship was to be repaired. Instead, under the name Blue Lady, the ship turned up in Malaysia and then was sold to a ship breaker in Alang, India. Since the summer of 2006, the Blue Lady has been anchored off the Alang coast, awaiting her fate. Initially, the Indian Supreme Court gave permission for the dismantling work to begin; however, environmental activists intervened, pointing out that this contradicted its earlier order, and that the vessel was so contaminated with asbestos that even the Bangladeshi government refused to allow it access to its ports. Import of asbestos is illegal under Indian law. Nonetheless, two justices of India’s Supreme Court allowed the toxic ship into Indian waters on “humanitarian grounds”. Apparently, thirteen Indian seamen were aboard her, and would have gone without food and water had the ship not been allowed to drop anchor somewhere. Additionally, the monsoon season was fast approaching, posing a danger to the ship and the crew. Meanwhile, the ship lacks required documentation that the Indian government requires for hazardous waste shipments, and the total amount of asbestos and other toxic substances has yet to be inventoried–leaving the Blue Lady’s fate in limbo.