Two ministries which regulate the shipbreaking industry decided earlier this year to make an Inventory of Hazardous Materials (IHM) mandatory for shipbreakers, in phases, to stop toxic vessels sailing into Bangladesh.
Officials of the Ministry of Industry and the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change took the decision in a meeting held on January 24 this year.
Ziaul Hasan, secretary of the environment ministry, said in the meeting that the IHM was made mandatory in the Hong Kong Convention. If it is also done here, it will be possible to keep the environment pollution-free, he said.
The Hong Kong International Convention for the Safe and Environmentally Sound Recycling of Ships, 2009 makes it mandatory for cash buyers and importers to have an IHM -- a document which helps identify the amount, type, and location of toxic substances on board -- done for safe dismantling of ships.
As the IHM is not yet compulsory for importers in issuing clearance to enter Bangladesh's shores, the possibility of pollution is substantial, he said in the meeting, reiterating the fact that it is currently not possible to assess hazardous materials as per The Ship Breaking and Recycling Rules, 2011 due to the lack of technical knowhow and efficiency.
The implementation of the meeting decisions will be monitored and supervised by the Ministry of Industry.
The ship-breaking industry in Chattogram, which caters to 80 percent of domestic steel demand, remains extremely dirty and dangerous for workers and the environment.
On December 19 last year, The Daily Star and Finance Uncovered, a reporting organisation in London, jointly investigated and ran a report on how cash buyers use false documents in sending toxic ships for dismantling to the Chattogram coast.
Officials in the meeting observed that the lack of efficiency in assessing toxic waste in ships sent for scrapping exposes the country's shores to pollution.
They decided to have an online database of ships being imported by domestic buyers for scrapping, for better coordination among various inspecting government bodies, read the meeting minutes obtained by The Daily Star recently.
At the meeting, Additional Secretary (ship recycling) of the Ministry of Industry Md Zafar Ullah stressed the need to enhance the efficiency of the Department of Environment (DoE) to inspect and detect dangerous waste.
He said IHM for ships could be implemented in various phases, adding that ships that are imported for dismantling should be verified as to whether they are on the Greenpeace list. Greenpeace enlists toxic ships worldwide in a bid to stop them from crossing international maritime borders to get dismantled.
The then director of DoE Chattogram Mohammad Moazzom Hossain informed the meeting of ships entering Bangladesh's borders by changing names, and underscored the need to strengthen surveillance so that no toxic ships can enter hiding information.
Additional secretary of environment ministry, Md Moniruzzaman, told The Daily Star last month that the current practice is to inspect the ship when it arrives at the outer anchorage of the Bay of Bengal.
"But we are now thinking the importer will have to declare that the ship is free of toxic items [through an IHM]. When an importer self-declares that the ship has no hazardous materials, then the responsibility lies on him if any toxic substance is found later," he said.
He said they gave their opinions and sent these to the Ministry of Industry.
Coordinator of YPSA (Young Power in Social Action), an NGO which works with shipbreaking yard workers, Mohammad Ali Sahin told The Daily Star that while preparing an IHM is a core principle of the Hong Kong Convention, importers rarely carry out one.
"IHM is very expensive, which is why the importers of scrap ships don't want to do it. The leniency of authorities in enforcing the Hazardous Waste and Ship Breaking Waste Management Rules, 2011 is helping shipyard owners get away with pollution," he said.
Contacted recently, Md Zafar Ullah of the Ministry of Industry told The Daily Star that the ministry currently doesn't have the facilities to verify IHM for ships.
"We are trying to increase the efficiency of labs under DoE so that shipbreakers can have it done [preparing IHM] from here. As it is time-consuming, we want to implement it in phases."
He added, "We have to implement it as per international legal obligations before 2023. So, we are trying to find ways to accelerate it."