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In late November, a 52,ton barge eased into this ramshackle port on the Bay of Bengal and came to rest on a wide, muddy beach. After nearly four decades crisscrossing the oceans for an American offshore engineering company, the DB did not come to erect another oil rig or lay miles of undersea pipe. Dead tankers, cruise liners, cargo ships and fishing trawlers from around the world molder in the hazy sunshine along a mile stretch of beach.
Thousands of laborers, many wearing plastic sandals and street clothes, use blowtorches to cut through the steel and then crank rust-ridden winches to haul the pieces up to dry land to be sold as scrap. The world disposed of ships last year. In terms of tonnage, a third of that demolition took place in Bangladesh, which surpassed India because of a decline in Indian demand for scrap steel.
Despite new laws aimed at making the business cleaner and safer, ships are taken apart here much as they were in the s. The gently sloping shoreline north of Chittagong allows a practice known as beaching, in which ships are piloted directly onto the sand during high tide. With no safe system to dispose of oil and toxic sludge, their waste continues to pollute the coast. Training and safety equipment are scant, and dozens of workers are still killed or seriously injured each year in falls, explosions and other accidents.
Workers are supposed to be at least 18, but even that basic law is often broken. Beaching, in particular, is highly unsafe, because so much of the work has to be done by hand, said Patrizia Heidegger, executive director of Shipbreaking Platform, a Brussels-based advocacy group. At least 16 Bangladeshi workers died and 22 were seriously injured in ship-breaking accidents last year, according to the group.
Half the deaths occurred in explosions caused by the gas cylinders attached to blowtorches. In addition, workers face the long-term health effects of exposure to hazardous substances released when the ships are broken down.