9 tons of asbestos? A toxic aircraft carrier must be swept away (but where?)

Where will this toxic aircraft carrier end up? In what could be described as a modern “voyage of the damned”, the former flagship of the Brazilian Navy may be forced to return home. The Turkish Environment Ministry has revoked its authorization for the vessel to enter the country. The reason given was the non-receipt of the inventory of hazardous substances on board the ship.

Turkey’s move was heralded by environmental groups, who feared the damage the retired aircraft carrier could do to Mediterranean waters. The NAe Sao Paulo, which retired in 2018, was sold to a Turkish scrap dealer. It left Brazil earlier this month and was being towed across the Atlantic Ocean, in defiance of international and Brazilian law – Brazil’s Federal District Court issued an injunction prohibiting transit.

The ship, which began his life of service as Clemenceau-class aircraft carrier of the French Navy Foch, had left Brazil on August 4, towed by a Dutch vessel for a 6,000 mile voyage to Aliaga, Turkey, where the flattop was to be cut. Several activist groups have alleged that the French-built carrier was exported in violation of the Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and their Disposal, as well as the Barcelona Convention for the Protection of the Marine Environment and the Mediterranean coastal region. Several Turkish communities have also expressed concern over the imminent arrival and scrapping of the ship, which they say will pose an unacceptable toxic threat.

A dead aircraft carrier: lack of paperwork and fears of asbestos

It now appears that the warship will be denied entry to Turkey largely because of a bureaucratic snafu. According to Turkish Environment Minister Murat Kurum, the Brazilian government did not send a detailed report on the presence of toxic substances contained in the ship, as demanded on August 9 by the Turkish authorities.

Without a response from the Brazilian Institute of Environment and Renewable Natural Resources, the entry permit for Sao Paulo has been revoked.

Environmental groups around Turkey had fought the arrival of the warship, and their biggest fear was the likely presence of asbestos contained in the aging carrier. The amount of the highly carcinogenic substance present on the retired carrier remains unknown. Some sources say the ship could carry 9.6 tons of material, while others say it could be closer to around 600 tons.

“We have repeatedly shared that we will not accept the vessel without hesitation and will turn it back before it enters our country’s waters if there is any dangerous negativity,” Kurum added. “We are closely monitoring all stages of the process, not just on the NAe Sao Paulo ship, but also on all ships. We do not allow any steps that could harm our environment and our people.

Past evidence certainly suggests that the amount of asbestos on board could approach the higher estimates, especially as the carrier’s sister ship – the French Navy carrier Clemenceau – contained more than 700 tons of asbestos when it was sent for scrapping in India. This carrier retired after the current lighthouse Charles de Gaulle entered into service in 2001.

In fact, history repeats itself, because the Clemenceauscrapping has become a protracted and controversial affair this lasted for about a decade, after several nations refused to accept the warship. After years of negotiations, when the carrier finally left France at the end of 2005, strong protests broke out over the improper disposal and lack of facilities for the management of toxic waste on the beaches of Alang, India, where the work had to be completed.

The French vessel was later boarded by militants, detained by Egyptian authorities, and eventually barred from entering Indian waters by the Supreme Court of India. Clemenceau was then ordered to return to France by French President Jacques Chirac. The flattop ended up being disassembled in a specialized shipyard owned by Able UK near Hartlepool in the UK in 2009, and work was completed a year later.

Turkey does not have the facilities that Able UK maintains, and it may be wise to refuse to accept São Paulo.

Save the aircraft carrier?

Brazil acquired the vessel in 2000and it was refitted and returned to service as the Sao Pauloreplacing the former British-made Colossus-class carrier operated by Brazil as Minas Gerais. However Sao Paulo increased the capability of the Brazilian Navy, it had a remarkably poor service record. In 16 years of service, it has never managed more than three months of operation between maintenance periods. Brazil also struggled to deploy the ship due to funding issues, and it was mainly used for pilot training in port.

The ship suffered two fires. There were some calls to modernize the ship, which could have allowed her to serve until the late 2030s. But in 2017, the Brazilian Navy decided that further investment in repairs would not be profitable, and he officially decommissioned it in 2018.

Efforts to save the ship – either as a museum or as a training ship for the Turkish Navy – failed last year. The latter plan was scuttled because the bilateral agreement between Paris and Brasilia stipulated that Brazil would be the “end user” of the ship.

It now appears that the Sao Paulo will be forced to return to Brazil, so perhaps it could indeed be saved as a museum ship. That would probably be the easiest solution. Whether tourists would actually believe the ship is safe to visit is another matter altogether.

Editor for 1945, Peter Suciu is a writer from Michigan who contributed to over four dozen magazines, newspapers and websites with over 3,000 articles published over a twenty-year career in journalism. He writes regularly on military hardware, the history of firearms, cybersecurity and international affairs. Peter is also a Contributing author for Forbes. You can follow him on Twitter: @PeterSuciu.

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