NGOs urge Brazil not to sink toxic ship in Atlantic Ocean

The former Brazilian aircraft carrier named SÃO PAULO, laden with asbestos, PCBs and other toxic waste materials, was seized on January 20 and forced out to sea by the Brazilian Navy, claiming in an official notice that the move had to be done as the vessel was supposedly in imminent danger of running aground or sinking off the Brazilian coast.  

Green groups that have been closely following the saga of the SÃO PAULO were shocked over this move and are not convinced by the Navy’s sudden rationale that the ship posed an imminent danger. They note that while it has been known for weeks that there are minor breaches in the hull in need of repair, the Navy itself refused for over three months to allow the vessel to return to one of its facilities for repair or survey.  

The NGOs greatly fear that the Navy intends to never have the ship be returned to a port, never be re-examined for its quantity of hazardous wastes onboard, toxicity and suspected radioactivity, and will instead use an excuse of a small leak in the ship’s structure to force its sinking in the Atlantic Ocean. 

“It is now clear that the Navy does not want to receive any further scrutiny it would surely receive by returning home the SÄO PAULO, and it looks like they will now try to sink it using a false excuse – out of sight, out of mind,” said Jim Puckett, Executive Director of the Basel Action Network (BAN). 

“The Navy has already taken the law into its own hands and is poised now to perpetrate a major environmental crime at sea unless President Lula as commander-in-chief intervenes.”

BAN is citing the illegal seizure of a privately owned ship, as well as defiance of the Basel Convention. The latter requires the aircraft carrier to be safely returned to Brazil with Brazilian assistance, which the Navy has refused for three months. The London Protocol further forbids the intentional sinking of vessels unless all efforts have been first made to rid the ships of toxic waste residual materials such as heavy metals, asbestos and PCBs.    

In a meeting held on 29 December, a Navy representative already alluded to a possible contingency action of sinking the ship.  At that meeting, the issue of the small leak in the SÃO PAULO’s hull was discussed and it was concluded that the ship was not in imminent danger of sinking but should still be returned to a Brazilian port to undergo repairs prior to being put out to bid again for recycling. 

Following that meeting and a few weeks after the Lula Administration was installed, the coalition of NGOs wrote a letter to the new Minister of the Environment and Climate Change and to the director of IBAMA, the Brazilian Agency responsible for fulfilling Brazil’s legal obligations under international law. 

The NGOs also issued a press release calling for the urgent safe docking of the vessel, fearing that it would indeed be abandoned by the Turkish owners. Within 24 hours of that press release, the Brazilian Navy, citing imminent hazard to the Brazilian population and environment inexplicably seized the vessel and seemingly forced a commercial tow ship to take it out to sea. 

In addition to the economic loss of a vast quantity of secondary steel the SÃO PAULO contains, a forced sinking by the Brazilian government would result in hundreds of tons of asbestos, toxic and persistent PCBs, heavy metal-laden paints and possible radioactive materials to be released into the marine environment in violation of international law (London Protocol).

“We call on President Lula as commander-in-chief of the Brazilian Navy to intervene immediately and give orders to bring the SÃO PAULO back into Rio De Janeiro to be received at the same Navy dock from which it left or find a suitable recycling destination,” said Ingvild Jenssen, Director of the NGO Shipbreaking Platform. 

“Intentionally sinking this toxic aircraft carrier would equate to a state sponsored environmental crime.”  

Photo credit: iStock/Cristian Lourenço

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