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Indian court delays decision on whether former cruise ship can be broken up

NEW DELHI—India's Supreme Court on Monday delayed for at least a month a decision on whether an asbestos-laden ship that was once a legendary ocean liner can be broken apart here for salvage.

The SS Norway, disabled by a boiler room explosion in the port of Miami in 2003, has become the latest high-profile vessel targeted by environmentalists. They allege that primitive conditions at ship-breaking yards in India and neighboring countries expose workers and the environment to asbestos, PCBs and other hazards.

They also charge that the ship, which was christened the SS France when it began trans-Atlantic service in 1962, never should have left Germany, where it had been towed from Miami after the explosion. European law bans exports of ships with hazardous waste to poor countries, and activists claim that officials of the Norway's parent, Star Cruise Lines, lied to German officials about renovation plans before the ship was towed to Malaysia and then to India.

A letter obtained by McClatchy Newspapers indicates that at least one German parliamentarian complained in March 2005 that the Norway's owners planned to scrap the ship and he asked whether the asbestos would be removed before the Norway left Germany. The ship was towed to Malaysia two months later.

Since mid-August, the Norway, one of the largest passenger ships ever built, has remained aground about 4,000 feet offshore from the ship-breaking yards at Alang in the west Indian state of Gujarat, awaiting the outcome of a legal challenge to its demolition.

A two-judge panel of the Supreme Court ordered the Gujarat Pollution Control Board to review a demolition plan submitted by a scrap yard, Priya Blue Industries, to see whether the plan meets the ship-breaking requirements spelled out by a court-appointed technical committee.

The justices gave the board four weeks to complete the review, though they didn't schedule another hearing until March. Priya Blue could request an earlier hearing, but that would be at the judges' discretion.

Environmentalists, who'd been hoping that the court would declare the effort to scrap the ship in India illegal, nonetheless welcomed the decision to study the issue more closely.

"I think it's a good order, because now at least they will hear us out," said Gopal Krishna, a New Delhi-based environmentalist who's involved in the case.

"The outcome is neutral," said Mahesh Agarwal, an attorney for Priya Blue. Sanjay Mehta, the chairman of Priya Blue, described the order as "OK," noting that he now can expect a conclusion in four weeks.

The Norway was the flagship of Miami-based Norwegian Cruise Line until the boiler room accident, which killed eight crew members.

Environmentalists have campaigned for several years to stop old ships from being sent to developing countries such as India for breaking.

Working conditions and the handling of hazardous waste have improved at Indian ship-breaking yards, but environmentalists say the changes are insufficient.

"It is fundamentally clear that the Alang yards currently and for the foreseeable future cannot operate in an environmentally sound manner," said Ingvild Jenssen, a Europe-based activist.

Norwegian Cruise Line says that its parent company, Malaysia-based Star Cruises, didn't intend to scrap the ship when it left Germany for Malaysia, even though the company had decided in late 2004 that scrapping was the most likely option and correspondingly had reduced the value of the Norway on its books, according to a letter sent by its attorneys to the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission.

Norwegian, in a written statement in response to e-mailed questions, said the write-down of the ship's value was for accounting reasons and didn't reflect a decision to scrap the Norway.

Still, at least one German parliamentarian, a member of the Green Party, was suspicious. Rainder Steenblock wrote a letter to port officials in Bremerhaven in March 2005 asking that the asbestos be removed before the ship was allowed to leave.

Officials say they can do nothing if an owner maintains that a ship isn't going to be scrapped. The Norway case is a "textbook example of the urgent need for more stringent regulations," said Holger Bruns, a spokesman for the construction and environment minister in Bremen, Germany, which oversees Bremerhaven port.

"As long as a ship does not appear beyond repair and the owner has not unambiguously declared an intent to scrap it, authorities cannot rule against the stated will of the owner," he said. "If the owner takes a decision after a ship leaves territorial waters, the authorities are powerless."

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(Special correspondent Claudia Himmelreich contributed to this report from Berlin.)

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(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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