The former Exxon Valdez is anchored some six miles off the coast of the Alang shipbreaking yard in India on June 30.
India's Supreme Court this week delivered a ruling that could drastically change the way international ships are dismantled, but in the process cleared the way for the destruction of the ship formerly known as the Exxon Valdez.
The symbol of America's worst oil tanker spill, the vessel is now the Oriental Nicety after a series of ownership changes since the 1989 disaster.
It's been anchored off India since May, when the court blocked it from being beached at the infamous Alang shipbreaking yard. Activists had sued, arguing that importing such ships for dismantling violated the U.N. Basel Convention, an international treaty on hazardous waste transport.
In its ruling Monday, the court acknowledged that violation, drawing praise from activists who want ships recycled using tougher health and environmental standards.
"Hopefully this ruling will be the beginning of the end of the dark ages of ship recycling," Jim Puckett, director of the Basel Action Network (BAN), said in a statement. "Hundreds of poor and desperate laborers have been killed or exposed to hazardous chemicals as a result of the disastrous shipbreaking practices on Indian beaches."
But activists were perplexed when the court exempted the Oriental Nicety.
"Oddly enough, the court acknowledged in its ruling that there may be toxic material in the Exxon Valdez that has not yet been discovered," Colby Self, director of BAN's Green Ship Recycling Campaign, told NBC News.
The court concluded any dangerous material would be "exposed only at the time of actual dismantling of the ship."
"It is made clear that if any toxic wastes embedded in the ship structure are discovered during its dismantling, the concerned authorities shall take immediate steps for their disposal at the cost of the owner," India's top judges wrote in their order, which was reported by The Hindu newspaper and other Indian news media.
More than two decades after the Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska, residents offer their advice to the Gulf Coast: Be prepared for a long, rough ride. NBC's George Lewis reports.
Longer term, the question will be whether the broader ruling is enforced.
Self voiced optimism but acknowledged that "political pressure is extremely high given the immediate economic impacts of this measure."
"The upcoming challenge is seeing that officials follow the court order," he said. One scenario, he noted, is that the local pollution control board might just issue a directive "to outwit the court's ruling."
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