Mexico Defies United Nations Convention

Two tankers owned and operated by Petróleos Mexicanos (PEMEX), Mexico’s state-owned oil company, were recently sold for breaking on the notorious shipbreaking beaches in Pakistan and Bangladesh. The arrival of these obsolete vessels, the Sebastian and the De Marz, in South Asia without notice and without first being pre-cleaned of the tons of hazardous materials built into each ship is a clear violation of the UN Basel Convention and Mexican law. The Mexican government had just last year promised Basel Convention watchdog group the Basel Action Network (BAN) that such exports of Mexican ships were illegal and would not be allowed. BAN is now calling on the newly elected Mexican Government to take immediate corrective action by repatriating the two vessels to Mexico. "Mexico has violated its own laws and international law. In accordance with Mexico’s obligations under the Basel Convention, these toxic ships must be repatriated immediately,” said Colby Self of the Basel Action Network. “The governments of Bangladesh and Pakistan must be told to return the ships and under no circumstances allow them to be scrapped on their beaches.

BAN, a member organization of the global NGO Shipbreaking Platform, initiated contact with the Mexian Secretariat of Environment and Natural Resources (SEMARNAT) in a letter(1) in October 2010, alerting officials of PEMEX’s plan to sell a number of obsolete tankers to foreign interests for scrap. At that time, the government replied, stating that they had intervened to block the sale of three PEMEX tankers and imposed restrictions on PEMEX’s future sales to prevent the illegal export of the vessels.

Over the next 18 months, BAN monitored what appeared to be continuous efforts by PEMEX to circumvent the law, and on April 6 informed the Mexican Government that PEMEX was again trying to sell the vessels under the claim that the vessels would be sold for continued use rather than disposal, an apparent attempt to bypass the Basel Convention rules on disposal of hazardous waste. BAN informed SEMARNAT that these vessels were already banned under MARPOL from operating as tankers due to their single-hull configurations and age, and therefore any claim of continued use was likely false. Nevertheless Mexican officials disregarded BAN’s warning and allowed the vessels to depart for alleged re-use, only to sail directly to Pakistan and Bangladesh for scrapping last month.

In an April 30, 2012 letter(2) from the office of Mexico’s representative to the Basel Convention, BAN was told that if these vessels attempted to enter foreign shipbreaking yards, Mexico would view such maneuvers as “illegal traffic” under Article 9 of the Basel Convention as Mexico did not authorize scrapping at foreign yards in non-OECD countries. It is now confirmed that this illegal traffic actually did occur. The Mexican government has not responded to BAN’s inquiries as to why its promised enforcement of its own laws as well as international law did not take place.

The ships are suspected of containing high levels of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), asbestos and other hazardous wastes. Mexico has implemented the Basel Ban Amendment into domestic law, which means the export of hazardous wastes is only allowed to OECD countries, EU countries and Liechtenstein. Pakistan and Bangladesh are non-OECD countries, and therefore these nations and others cannot legally receive these vessels as waste from Mexico unless the ships are first fully decontaminated. Alternatively, the ships could have been recycled safely in a proper facility in Mexico, the U.S. or another OECD or EU country.

Shipbreaking in Pakistan and Bangladesh takes place under extremely dangerous and polluting conditions where workers labor on tidal sands to cut ships up by hand, exposing themselves to the risks of toxic chemicals, fires, explosions and falling steel plates. Pollutants are allowed to flow unimpeded into the marine environment.

Last year, two former PEMEX tankers were recycled at Mexican yards following the Government’s proper intervention following a BAN warning which created hundreds of local recycling jobs in Mexico.

Why the sudden change of policy? We hope it does not reflect a cynical calculation that money is more important than worrying about damaging the global environment, exploiting impoverished Asian laborers, or providing good jobs by doing the scrapping job safely and cleanly at home,” said Self.