I am reliably informed that the town of Alang in India’s Gujarat State boasts a fine 10 kilometre long beach. I am disappointed to inform you however that I have not seen it for myself. There are a series of very strict rules on visiting on this community which include a ban on foreign nationals. What’s more, a highly vigilant team of policemen stationed on the town’s periphery are instructed to keep it that way.

In a country as companionable as India this “no-hospitality policy” comes as a bit of shock. Still, there is something in town so extraordinary and so unsettling here that many people in Gujarat would rather you did not see it: Alang plays host to the world’s largest scrap yard.

Ship breaking

To be more specific, the business of this town is the dismantling and destruction of “end of life” ocean going ships. They are colossal objects, driven onto the beach at full speed by their captains on a final doom-filled voyage. Tens of thousands of migrant workers are then deployed with blow torches and hammers and their own muscle power to rip the ships apart.

There are powerful economic motives at work here. The 130 odd ship breaking firms who make Alang their home are after the steel which makes up about 90 per cent of a 200,000 plus metric tonne vessel. After it is removed from the ship it will be recycled into steel rods and bars, fetching about $400 a tonne. Such prices are thought to guarantee excellent, multi-million dollar returns for the owners of the ship breaking companies.

‘Oriental Nicety’

It seems that business is booming. There are dozens of ships parked up on the beach, silently awaiting their fate. Currently among their number is one of the biggest and most notorious ships ever to sail the seven seas. It’s called the Exxon Valdez, an oil tanker that spilled tens of millions of gallons of oil the pristine Alaskan waters in 1989.

After the disaster it was passed around between Exxon-owned subsidiaries before being sold and renamed the “Oriental Nicety” – yes the “Oriental Nicety” – and it is a nice project it is for the ship breakers with its big, open spaces for the labourers to work in and lots and lots of steel.

Curse of the Exxon Valdez?

However, ever since the Exxon Valdez/Ocean Nicety turned up they’ve had nothing but problems in Alang. In fact, you might even say it is cursed.

First, a determined band of environmentalists tried to block its arrival in the courts, arguing the ship contained various toxic materials like asbestos, refrigerants, oil sludge and various heavy metals. They won a partial victory in India’s Supreme Court which ruled that India must start complying with international treaty obligations on “toxic-ships” – still, the court took the word of the state government officials who said the Exxon Valdez/Oriental Nicety was “clean”.

Then a huge explosion a few weeks on another ship down on the beach resulted in the deaths or six or more workers.

Unexpectedly, the police came in and charged the owners of the ship breaking yard with murder and that’s something that has never happened before in India.

It’s really upset things here in Alang. The ship breaking firms went on strike this week in an attempt to get the police to drop the charges but it hasn’t worked so far.

That’s why we’re here as well – to investigate the curse of the Exxon Valdez.  At the moment however, we can’t get past the policemen at the gate – the picture above shows how close we are –  but I’ll let you know how we get on in future blogs.

Follow John Sparks on Twitter via @c4sparks