A shipbreaking company is set to illegally import a highly toxic ship for scrapping, risking workers' health and environmental damage.
The ship, once used for storing oil by offshore oil and gas companies, is an end-of-life floating storage and offloading (FSO) vessel named J Nat.
Now it is coming to Bangladesh from Indonesia carrying toxic waste contaminated with mercury, according to lab results obtained by the NGO Shipbreaking Platform.
It left Batam, Indonesia, on April 18 and is due to reach the Bangladeshi coast on May 7, according to satellite information sent by the ship and published on maritime databases.
The vessel is flying the flag of convenience of Palau, an offshore tax haven in the Pacific Ocean.
It is being towed by Indian company Prayati Shipping Pvt Ltd's tug S CAS (IMO 8411047), said the Platform.
Documents obtained by The Daily Star show the vessel contains around 1,500 tonnes of mercury-contaminated waste, 60 tonnes of sludge oil, 1,000 tonnes of slop oil, and 500 tonnes of oily water on board.
Samples of this sludge have revealed mercury levels of 395mg/kg, according to lab results obtained by NGO Shipbreaking Platform. The Hazardous Waste and Ship-breaking Waste Management Rules list mercury and mercury compounds as hazardous if their concentration exceeds 50 mg/kg.
If dumped in Bangladesh, the waste will pose a serious threat to environment.
Like other end-of-life ships, J Nat also has toxins such as Polychlorinated Biphenyls, asbestos and other different heavy metals within its structures.
NGO Shipbreaking Platform issued a briefing paper on J Nat titled "Export of toxic vessel in breach of international law" on April 19.
The paper states that Indonesian authorities appear not to have informed Bangladesh about the presence of hazardous wastes and materials in the vessel in violation of article VI of the Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Waste and their Disposal.
The convention requires the exporting country to notify and obtain consent from all importing and transit countries about the quantities and types of the materials.
However, the Department of Environment (DoE), which issues clearance certificates for scrap vessels in Bangladesh, is not aware of J Nat's import.
"Generally, the shipbreaking yard owners contact us for permission once the ship reaches Bangladesh. We physically examine the ship and then give a clearing certificate for scrapping," Mohammad Moazzem Hossain, director of DoE Chattogram (regional), told The Daily Star last Tuesday.
Mizanur Rahman, national project manager of Safe and Environmentally Sound Ship Recycling in Bangladesh (SENSREC), said they had not given any no-objection certificate (NOC) for ship import since March 22 due to the coronavirus crisis.
"I am not sure whether somebody took NOC for this ship before this [March 22]," said Mizanur, also the deputy secretary of the industries ministry executing SENSREC, on Saturday.
The Daily Star could not know the name of the shipbreaking company which is importing the vessel.
Mizanur admitted that sometimes shipbreakers try to import toxic ships concealing information. Currently, a half-wrecked toxic oil tanker, brought without any proper documents, is lying on the Sitakunda beach.
The briefing paper mentions the ship, formerly known as FSO Jesslyn Natuna, was built in Japan in 1982. It was owned by Indonesian company Global Niaga Bersama PT till August 2019.
Then, it was sold to a Hong Kong company connected to Somap, which buys end-of-life vessels for 100 percent cash upfront and sells to beaching yards in Bangladesh, India, Pakistan China and Turkey.
Somap changed the ship's name to J Nat and its flag from Indonesia to the west pacific island country of Palau.
The briefing paper shows a report issued by Indonesia's Office of the Environment and Forestry Department which states the quantity of sludge, slop oil and oily water and says instead of cleaning the waste in Indonesian water, the ship will be sent to Chittagong, Bangladesh.
On April 15, an NGO named Indonesian Environmental Care Committee filed an online complaint to the Indonesian environment and forest ministry about the illegal export of toxic waste.
The NGO, in a letter to the harbour master's office in Batam on April 17, also requested them not to allow J Nat to leave the port as the tank of the ship was not cleaned properly.
The very day, the vessel received port clearance for departure.
On April 23, Mohammad Abu Taher, president, Bangladesh Ship Breaking Association (BSBA), was asked by The Daily Star about the import of a toxic ship without cleaning it. He said no such ship is coming.
The shipbreaking yards reopened in the third week of April, although the nationwide shutdown continues since March 26.
RISK FOR WORKERS, ENVIRONMENT
Beaching and scrapping a toxic ship like J Nat would cause health hazards for workers, due to mercury's extremely poisonous nature, experts say.
FSO oil tankers become contaminated with mercury which naturally occurs in oil and gas fields. Even the steel body of these vessels, contaminated with mercury, poses great threat to workers when they use oxy-acetylene cutting torch.
Toxic gas inhalation and explosion can even cause immediate fatalities.
Last month, two workers died and another required medical attention after being exposed to toxic gases while manually dismantling a scrap ship at a shipbreaking yard in Chattogram's Sitakunda.
Prof Alak Paul of the Department of Environment and Geography at Chattogram university, told The Daily Star that shipbreaking yards often do not take proper measures to protect the environment while scrapping toxic ships.
However, the extension of pollution caused by shipbreaking yards is yet to be determined, he said.
"Surely, it is polluting the aquatic resources like in the Sandwip channel or maybe killing the mangrove planted between Mirersorai and Sitakunda. But it is hard to say what is happening there. We were not allowed to enter the shipbreaking sites," he said.
Prof Alak Paul co-authored a study titled "High Concentrations of Organic Contaminants in Air from Ship Breaking Activities in Chittagong, Bangladesh" published in the international journal "Environmental Science & Technology" in 2015.
HIGH COURT RULING
Last year, following a writ petition, the High Court observed that all permissions purportedly given for import, beaching, breaking, cutting, or dismantling of vessels that are deficient in form and content, are illegal, without lawful authority and detrimental to public interest.
It was delivered on November 14, 2019 in response to a public interest litigation filed by Bangladesh Environment Lawyer Association (Bela) about importing and scrapping of MT Producer, a toxic ship similar to J Nat.
The court said, "The circumstances of the import of the vessels into Bangladesh are, hereby, declared to constitute illegal traffic of a toxic ship into our territory."