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Clemenceau case may doom Indian shipbreaking

India’s struggling shipbreakers fear doom for their industry if tighter environmental laws are introduced in the wake of the controversy over an asbestos-laden French aircraft carrier.

A court-appointed panel has questioned French officials and environmental activists over the amount of toxic chemicals in the decommissioned Clemenceau, whose planned scrapping here raised strenuous objections from green groups.

“It is true that the number of vessels that are coming in now are less,” said Vippin Aggrawal, honourary secretary of the Ship Recycling Industries Association in the western state of Gujarat.

“That does not mean we should go in for such a vessel. It will create more problems for the industry.”

The Supreme Court Monitoring Committee has ordered the Clemenceau — the former pride of the French navy — to stay out of India’s exclusive economic zone until the final report is ready.

The committee chairperson, G Thyagarajan, said the body would present its final recommendations to a bench of the Supreme Court by February 13.

Thyagarajan said his team was examining whether the Clemenceau, which left the Mediterranean port of Toulon on December 31, had fulfilled obligations under global treaties such as the Basel Convention as well as domestic regulations on environmental protection.

“Asbestos is a known poison, a known killer. What will be its impact on national health? How much is it carrying? We are scientists and we want to get to the truth,” he said.

Aggrawal said Indian shipbreakers were equipped to handle hazardous materials in small quantities but “not the order of what Clemenceau has”.

“There are lot of contradicting reports about the quantity and nature of asbestos in the ship. If they can remove most of it, why did they leave some quantity inside?” he said, referring to decontamination work carried out in France.

“This creates doubts in the minds of people. Now, if this vessel has more than the normal amount of waste then you require new technology or process to clear it.

The fear of the industry is that due to this there will be new rules, on top of the existing ones, forced on us,” he added.

“Then it will be the last nail in the coffin.”

However, Kiritsinh Gohil, who runs the Alang shipbreaking yard — the world’s largest — where the Clemenceau will be dismantled, said the facility was fully prepared.

“We are fully prepared to handle it. We have got the whole gear, the suits, the masks … and other protective equipment. Earlier we have dismantled naval warships of the same kind from Russian and European countries. This is not the first,” said Gohil.

The yard was set up in 1983, and six years later it dismantled 361 ships, weighing three million tonnes in total. By March 2005 the numbers had fallen to 116, or 540&bsp;350 tonnes.

Officials from the Gujarat Maritime Board, ship-breaking firm Shree Ram Vessels’ and the French SDI ship decommissioning firm have all made submissions to the hearing, saying that worker safety was not an issue.

But association official Aggrawal said that if the government imposed new restrictions because of the controversy, the survival of the industry would be in question.

“At least 150 000 people directly or indirectly in the region depend on the industry for a living. Where will they go?” he said.

Environmental activists say most sea-going ships end their service at yards in India, Bangladesh, China and Pakistan, where they are cut up by unprotected workers, taking a grim toll on human health and the environment.

The Clemenceau, which was prevented from sailing through the Suez canal for a week because of fears over the amount of toxic chemicals it contained, entered the waterway on Monday, Egyptian officials told journalists. – AFP

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