The Rhode Island was built in Baltimore by Bethlehem Steel for Texaco. Launched in July 1964, the 604-foot tanker represented American shipbuilding in its prime. Texaco brought in dignitaries by train for the ceremony; Beth Steel threw a lunch afterward at the Sparrows Point Country Club.
The tanker had 90,000 feet of pipe and was covered with 8,500 gallons of lead-based paint. It was powered by big steam turbines, which the Indian shipbreakers treasure because of the high-priced specialty metals that went into their construction.
Legacy of the Exxon Valdez
The Rhode Island's demolition is part of a much larger story.
After the Exxon Valdez ran aground in Prince William Sound in Alaska in March 1989, spilling 11 million gallons of oil, the disaster led to stronger measures to protect the environment. Congress required new tankers to have double hulls -- one inside the other -- and outlawed the use of single-hulled tankers like the Exxon Valdez by 2010.
The result has been a bonanza for Indian shipbreakers, as the world's major tanker lines replace their fleets. There are about 6,700 tankers in the world. Each tanker scrapped in India (or in Pakistan or Bangladesh) means the wholesale release of oil, sludge, asbestos, PCBs and chromates onto the beach and into the water, and the release of lead fumes into the air from burning paint. Each tanker scrapped translates into a dozen or more injuries among the workers, and an even chance that someone will be killed.
That is the last legacy of the Exxon Valdez.
With the Keystone Rhode Island, as with most ships here, the breakers begin cutting from the bow and work their way aft, leaving the bottom plates to the end. A tanker can be dismantled in about seven weeks; a warship takes considerably longer, because it is full of compartments and hard-to-cut armor plate.
Any equipment that can be reused is sold through secondhand dealers on the road from Bhavnagar. Buyers can find, in varying states of repair: sinks, toilets, chairs, mattresses, life jackets, china, telephones (with and without dials), lumber, doors, desks, fire hoses, colanders, mixers, pumps, water fountains, vacuum cleaners, refrigerators, washing machines, diesel engines and surgical tables.
One dealer had an American flag, in a heap on the ground, and a selection of pianos (including a Soviet Red October upright, badly out of tune).
But items such as these account for only about 4 percent of a shipbreaker's income, says Bhavin Shah, overseer on the Keystone Rhode Island. The money is in the metal. And the secret to making it, he says, is to break the ship and sell the steel as quickly as possible.
The U.S. Navy, which could soon send dozens of ships here, has had a handful of vessels scrapped in Alang in recent years. The USS Bennington, for example, came here in 1995.
A company called Resource Recovery International paid $200,000 to scrap the World War II-era ship in the United States. Then the company agreed to pay an additional $1 million in return for being allowed to send the aircraft carrier to India. In December 1994, Resource Recovery sold the vessel to a middleman in England; the middleman then sold it to an Indian shipbreaker for a reported $6 million.
The escalating resale price is explained by the lower costs South Asian shipbreakers incur -- and the higher profits they collect -- because they pay paltry wages and aren't hindered by tough safety and environmental regulations.
The Defense Department did require Resource Recovery to submit a technical plan outlining how workers' safety and health would be protected. But the plan was meaningless. Rohit Bhatt, an official with the Alang scrapyard, said his company had no contact with anyone from the U.S. government or Resource Recovery.
On a visit to the site, Sun reporters saw about 400 workers cutting steel with torches and doing other work as they dismantled the Bennington. No special precautions were taken in removing asbestos or other hazardous materials.
In fact, nowhere in Alang, among the tens of thousands of men, did anyone wear a hard hat, safety harness or respirator, even though they are required by the Gujarat Factories Rules.
Under its new policy, the Navy would not need to inquire about safety practices in India. Such formalities as existed in the
Bennington project, at least on paper, would be swept away.
Routine overseas sales of U.S. warships became possible this summer after the Environmental Protection Agency gave the Navy an exemption from rules banning the export of ships containing PCBs, or polychlorinated biphenyls. They were widely used in electric insulators until the 1970s, when they were linked to serious health problems.
A Third World dump for America's ships?
India: On a fetid beach, 35,000 men scrap the world's ships with little more than their bare hands. Despite wretched conditions, they say it is better to work and die than to starve and die.
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