Toxic warship starts illegal voyage from Brazil to Turkey to be scrapped

Reports from Rio de Janeiro, Brazil confirmed that the sister ship of the infamous aircraft carrier CLEMENCEAU, formerly known as French warship FOCH, and most recently named the SÃO PAULO, has now been placed under tow on an about 6000-mile journey to Aliaga, Turkey, where it is to be scrapped. 

Environmental groups around the world are denouncing Brazil’s export and disposal plans in Turkey as illegal and unsafe.  In violation of Basel and Barcelona Conventions, NGOs call on France’s President Macron to take responsibility for the old French aircraft carrier.

History repeating itself

The NGO Shipbreaking Platform, Basel Action Network (BAN), BAN Asbestos France, Henri Pézerat Association (Work, Health, Environment), International Ban Asbestos Secretariat (IBAS), İstanbul Isig Meclisi, Brazilian ABREA and Greenpeace Mediterranean have called upon Macron to take responsibility for the ship and direct it to safe and legal recycling or reuse, as France did with the sister carrier the CLEMENCEAU in 2006. 

At that time, France exported the CLEMENCEAU to India, only to admit that the export was illegal under the EU Waste Shipment Regulation. Consequently, President Jacques Chirac ordered its return to France.  

Annie Thébaud-Mony, Ban Asbestos France, said: “History is sadly repeating itself. In 2006, the Indian Supreme Court and the French Conseil d’Etat required France to take into account international law concerning the dismantling of the Clemenceau. Will it be necessary for the citizen movement of many countries concerned to plead again in court in 2022 to respect international law and respect of occupational and environmental health?”

Illegal export

This time, according to environmental organizations, the movement of the SÃO PAULO from Brazil to Turkey is also illegal, as it violates the 1996 Izmir Protocol (Protocol on the Prevention of Pollution of the Mediterranean Sea by Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and their Disposal) of the Barcelona Convention, which does not allow hazardous wastes to enter the Mediterranean Sea unless they are to be destined to an EU country for recycling or disposal. 

The export of the ship also violates the Basel Convention as Brazil has failed to recognize the Izmir Protocol that imposes a ban on Turkey, and has failed to notify and receive the consent of the potential transit states Spain, Morocco, and the UK at the Strait of Gibraltar.

Further, the NGOs claim that the IHM (Inventory of Hazardous Materials) is suspected of being a gross underestimation as it claims levels of asbestos, PCBs, and other toxic materials at levels far below what was found on the CLEMENCEAU.

In 2000, the French Navy sold the aircraft carrier SÃO PAULO to Brazil. Last year, the Brazilian navy decided to scrap the vessel, and it was auctioned off to a Turkish shipbreaking yard, Sök Denizcilik and Ticaret Limited. 

The SÃO PAULO, as did the CLEMENCEAU, contains large amounts of hazardous substances such as asbestos, PCBs, and toxic paints within its structure, qualifying it under international law as hazardous waste and thus subject to special trade controls. 

The NGOs alerted the Turkish Ministry of Environment and Urbanization and the Brazilian Basel Convention Competent Authority (IBAMA) about the legal, environmental, and health risks linked to breaking the vessel in Turkey. 

So far, the two governments have rebuffed the NGOs and ignored the claims of legal violations. The NGO Basel Action Network answered IBAMA’s official response with an open letter, urging Brazil to respect international law and delay the export until a legal and safe solution can be found. 

Jim Puckett, Director, Basel Action Network (BAN), said: “What Turkey and Brazil are doing can best be called state-sponsored criminal waste trafficking. We have cited chapter and verse of their treaty violations and yet they’ve responded with the bureaucratic equivalent of a shrug. 

“As we were forced to do with the CLEMENCEAU, we will have to rely on the citizens of multiple countries and responsible governments around the world to enforce the treaty obligations of Turkey and Brazil.”

Discrepancy in waste accounting

The consultant Grieg Green had prepared the IHM for the SÃO PAULO. NGOs now raise serious concerns that this IHM has missed identifying large amounts of asbestos, PCBs, and radioactive contamination. 

Comparing the IHM of the SÃO PAULO with the one that Bureau Veritas issued for the CLEMENCEAU, there is not only a big discrepancy in terms of the amounts of hazardous materials identified but also in terms of rooms and tanks that have been sampled. On the SÃO PAULO, 12% of the rooms were sampled, compared to 82% of the rooms on the CLEMENCEAU.

The SÃO PAULO’s IHM estimates just 9.6 tons of asbestos-contaminated materials onboard the vessel. However, the CLEMENCEAU, SÃO PAULO’s sistership, contained at least 600 tons of asbestos. With no further proof of prior asbestos removal operations on the SÃO PAULO, it is expected that the ship has similar amounts of asbestos onboard.

Moreover, the IHM provided by Grieg Green did not detect the presence of PCBs. However, no testing of the electrical cabling was conducted even though all the electrical cabling on the CLEMENCEAU was estimated to contain PCBs, and the use of PCBs in ship flooring, gaskets, rubber parts, insulation, paints, etc. was common at the time both aircraft carriers were built in France. 

The SÃO PAULO was furthermore involved with atmospheric nuclear bomb testing in the Pacific. The presence of 170 tons of lead/cadmium paint, which could shield radioactive contamination, and the lack of information on prior removal of radioactive equipment have raised concerns that the vessel is contaminated despite claims to the contrary.

Turkish citizens in strong opposition

In view of the large amounts of asbestos and other hazardous materials embedded within the vessel’s structure, local civil society groups, political leaders, technical experts, and union organizers in Turkey are now stepping out in strong opposition to the import of the vessel to Turkey. Turkish environmental organizations such as ALÇEP, FOÇEP, EGECEP, IA and Polen Ecology in Izmir, intend to use their constitutional right to life and the environment, to impede the dismantling of the aircraft carrier.

Asli Odman, Academic, Istanbul Health and Safety Labor Watch, said: “Despite the claims that all is well in Turkish shipbreaking yards, the massive amounts of asbestos, toxic paints, and PCBs have a deadly impact on workers, their families and on the communities where the removed toxic materials and paint-laden steel are smelted. 

“There are long-lasting environmental and social rights violations taking place in and around Aliağa, and this time, the populations of Aliağa and İzmir are organizing energetically against this import and the lack of accountability in the shipbreaking sector.”

Macron asked to take responsibility

Now that Brazil has rebuffed the call to halt the export of the ship, the NGOs are calling upon Macron to stop the export of the SÃO PAULO to Turkey and make sure that the export and subsequent management of the toxics on the SÃO PAULO is done in an environmentally sound manner.

Photo credit: Instituto São Paulo. Foch, the aircraft carrier prior departure.

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