The United Arab Emirates, Greece and the United States of America were the worst dumpers of commercial ships and offshore units in South Asian beaches last year, and half of them ended up in Bangladesh.
Those vessels were sold for dismantling with blatant disregard for safety standards and in violation of international laws.
The NGO Shipbreaking Platform, a coalition of environmental, human and labour rights organisations campaigning for clean and safe ship recycling, released the data on Tuesday.
The platform has recorded 24 workers' deaths in accidents on the beach of Chattogram, making 2019 "the worst year for Bangladeshi yards in terms of fatalities since 2010."
At least 34 other workers were severely injured.
A total of 469 large tankers, bulkers, floating platforms, cargo and passenger ships were broken down in primitive, substandard conditions in Bangladesh, India and Pakistan, making nearly 90 percent of gross tonnage dismantled globally.
All ships sold to ship-breaking yards in Chattogram arrived there through the hands of scrap-brokers, better known as cash buyers, companies in the trade of end-of-life vessels. When a vessel reaches the end of its service period, the owner sells it to a scape-broker, who then brings the vessel to its final destination.
Cash buyers typically re-name, re-register and re-flag the vessels on their last voyage. By using the buyers, ship owners seek to avoid legal, financial and other risks related to selling a ship for breaking in a beaching yard.
The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) provides for the primary responsibility of ships to rest with the vessel's flag state. Thus, every merchant ship needs to be registered under the flag of a particular state so that its operation will be regulated by that state.
Almost half of the ships sold to South Asia changed flags just weeks before hitting the beach. The world's largest and most notorious cash buyer is GMS, a company founded in Cumberland, Maryland.
Syeda Rizwana Hasan, renowned environmentalist and chief executive of Bangladesh Environmental Lawyers Association and a local member of the platform, said, "Hazardous ships are coming to this country not only because of our failure and corruption, but also because of the ship-owning countries.
"When there is no use for a vessel, it is a waste and the owning country should take care of it."
She further said that while being imported, such a vessel should have a genuine certification that it would not inflict pollution and harm by hazardous substances. There were clear directives from the High Court in 2009 as also last year regarding the management of waste during ship-breaking.
Those are being violated, Rizwana added.
In November, a Bangladeshi court condemned the illegal breaking of the Danish container shipping giant Maersk's FPSO North Sea Producer after it had been sold to GMS for cash and allegedly fraudulently exported from the UK in 2016. Criminal investigations are underway in the UK.
Breaking in primitive, substandard conditions
According to the platform, ship owners of the UAE were responsible for selling 45 ships, the highest, to breaking yards in South Asia. Greek owners were next with 40 beached vessels and the US with 29.
"American offshore giants Diamond Offshore, Rowan Companies, Tidewater and Transocean are amongst the biggest global dumpers exploiting the environment and impoverished work force of South Asia," claims Jim Puckett, director of the US based Basel Action Network (BAN), a member organisation of the Shipbreaking Platform.
"These owners use foreign flags to hide their dirty work, but our research clearly lays the blame on these companies, who act in violation of international law and norms."
Other well-known shipping companies that dumped toxic ships on south Asian beaches last year include Costamare, CMA CGM, Diamond Offshore, ENSCO, MOL, MSC, NYK Line, Tidewater and Vale.
"There is widespread knowledge of the irreparable damage caused by dirty and dangerous practices on tidal mudflats, yet profit is the only decisive factor for most ship owners when selling their vessels for breaking," said the Shipbreaking Platform's founder and director Ingvild Jenssen.
Eleven vessels from the container shipping line Evergreen are said to have ended up in South Asia in 2019. In the past couple of years, the company has been in the spotlight for damaging shipbreaking practices.
The dry bulk shipping company Berge Bulk is runner-up for worst corporate practices, according to the platform. Four ships owned by the Bermuda-based ship owner ended up in Bangladesh "for dirty and dangerous breaking."
Meanwhile, more yards claim to have upgraded their beaching facilities to comply with the requirements set by the International Maritime Organisation's Hong Kong Convention.
Even so, recent inspections by the European Commission and media reports have flagged serious concerns related to pollution of the inter-tidal area, absence of medical facilities, breach of labour rights and a lack of capacity to safely manage hazardous waste, including mercury and radioactive contaminated materials that are typically found on offshore oil and gas units.
Cheap labour attracts hazardous ships
As many as 232 scrap ships were imported last year, weighing nearly 26 lakh tonnes, which had a market value of Tk10,000 crore. Bangladesh holds the top position in the global ship-breaking industry.
"We can only take pride in being at the top when ship-breaking will be done in a safe manner and without causing harm to the environment," said Ali Shahin, coordinator of Young Power in Social Action, an NGO that focuses on safety at shipyards.
The death of workers is frequent because dismantling goes on in a primitive fashion, he added.
It is the cheapest labour that has made Bangladesh a popular destination for hazardous scrap ships, said Maruf Hossain, a researcher from the marine science department of Chittagong University.