You are using an older browser version. Please use a supported version for the best MSN experience.

Brazil plans to sink a ‘toxic’ aircraft carrier: reasons and concerns, explained

The Indian Express logo The Indian Express 04-02-2023 Arjun Sengupta
© Provided by The Indian Express

Brazilian news outlet Folha de S.Paulo reported on January 28 that Brazil's navy planned to scuttle the hull of the now decommissioned aircraft carrier Sao Paulo despite protests from Brazil's environment ministry.

The major concern about the aged ship's sinking is the presence of at least nine tons of asbestos in the hull, along with smaller quantities of other undesirable substances such as oil and chemical coatings. The sinking of the ship would deposit these toxic substances in the ocean, leading to a major environmental catastrophe.

A Turkish shipyard had previously bought the hull, and had planned to dismantle it. However, facing complaints from environmental groups about the asbestos, Turkey revoked authorisation for the ship to enter its waters. The ship is currently sailing on tow, off the coast of Brazil.

Also in Explained |Two years after Myanmar coup, how the country is a mess — and India’s headache has worsened

In January this year, the navy observed a "critical increase in the degradation of the safety of the hull", increasing the navy's urgency to "deal with" the situation.

A cold war era relic

The NAe Sao Paulo was a Clemenceau-class aircraft carrier in service with the Brazilian Navy. First commissioned in 1963 by the French navy as Foch, it remained in service with France till 2000 when it was transferred to Brazil, becoming its flagship.

However, already past its prime, the ship’s time with the Brazilian navy was marred with various issues, with the carrier requiring frequent maintenance and suffering from many breakdowns. Finally, in 2017, as it became increasingly less viable to operate the Sao Paulo, Brazil decided to decommission the ship.

The ship used the CATOBAR system (also used by US's Nimitz class carriers) and had a 870 feet long flight deck with the capacity to carry 22 jets and 27 helicopters. It weighs over 32,000 tons.

Don't Miss |Why are Ahmadiyya mosques in Pakistan under attack by vandals?

Asbestos used as an insulator

Asbestos has been used on ships as both a fire retardant and an insulator to protect sailors from the constant and jarring vibrations of ships' engines. According to NGO Shipbreaking Platform, despite being banned from ships since 2002, recent estimates indicate that asbestos is "still found in over 65 per cent of vessels, including 50 per cent of all new builds."

Today, it is known to be a highly toxic material and a carcinogen. Inhaled or swallowed asbestos fibers can become trapped in the respiratory or digestive systems of the body, accumulating over time. Studies have shown that repeated exposure can cause inflammation and damage the DNA. The following illnesses have been associated with asbestos exposure: lung cancer, COPD, mesothelioma and asbestosis.

According to Shipbreaking Platform’s study on another Clememnceau-class carrier, the ship contained nearly 760 tons of asbestos, an amount far higher than the nine tons Brazil claimed the Sao Paulo contained.

Read in Explained |What UAE’s new laws on marriage, divorce, child custody for non-Muslim residents say

A problem for the ship breaking industry

Over the years, the shipbreaking industry, particularly in the Global South, has been affected by asbestos-related illnesses. For instance, In 2017, a study seeking to map asbestosis among shipbreaking workers in Bangladesh identified that, from a group of 94 workers, 35 per cent were suffering from asbestosis.

This has led to the recycling of old ships, becoming a health and environment issue, as well as a matter of North-South equity. Often, ship recycling yards in the Global South, where regulations have been lax and systems corrupt, take on the work of scrapping old ships that would both be more expensive and harder to do in the West.

Finding no takers for scrapping the ship

The Brazilian navy planned for the ship's "green dismantling" after it was decommissioned, reported Folha de S.Paulo. After it was stripped of many of its systems, in 2021, the ship's hull was sold to a Turkish company Sok Shipping, accredited and certified to carry out safe recycling. In August 2022, the ship set sail on tow for Turkey from Rio de Janeiro.

Things, however, would not go as planned. In the face of protests from environmental groups such as Greenpeace and Shipbreaking Platform, the Turkish government revoked the ship's permission to enter its territorial waters, making it turn back from the Straits of Gibraltar.

Since then, the ship has been tugged around international waters, off the coast of Brazil. Brazilian ports have refused to provide Sao Paulo harbour, while protests around the environmental risks that the ship poses have continued.

Everyday Global |Paris Club likely to provide financial assurances to IMF on Sri Lanka debt: What is this grouping?

Not easy to recycle old aircraft carriers

Ship-recyclers at Gujarat’s Alang, one of the largest ship-recycling yards in the world, said they had not tried to purchase the carrier. "Warships require special clearances from the Government of India for beaching in Alang and one has to follow a rather lengthy process to obtain them. Therefore, no one from Alang tried to purchase that ship to the best of my knowledge,” Haresh Parmar, secretary of Ship Recycling Industries Association (SRIA), the Bhavnagar-based chamber of ship-recyclers at Alang, told The Indian Express.

Alang's ship-recycling yard had previously received a contract to recycle Sao Paulo’s sister-ship, the French Clemenceu, but ran into similar difficulties. The Supreme Court of India stepped in in 2006, denying the ship access to Alang on the grounds of environmental risks.

Latest inspection raises alarm bells

Earlier in January, after an inspection, the Brazilian navy announced that the ship's hull was taking in significant water and was at risk of sinking. The rate at which the ship has been flooding indicates that a structural collapse "in just four weeks" is a likely possibility, the navy's report said.

Furthermore, the Brazilian navy claimed there is no possibility of saving the hull under the current circumstances.

Is there no other option?

The navy said there is no option but to take the ship to a safe location, away from any protected environment zones or undersea cables, and sink it in a controlled manner.

However, scuttling the ship in the middle of the ocean is likely to release high quantities of asbestos into the water which runs the risk of entering our food cycle. Brazil’s environmental agency told The New York Times that Sao Paulo’s chemicals could harm the ozone layer, cause the death of marine wildlife, and deteriorate ecosystems in important marine biodiversity hotspots.

Environmental groups have been baffled as to why the navy wouldn't take the ship back. Under the Basel Convention, countries are required to reimport toxic waste that they are unable to successfully export. Activists say Brazil is violating the convention by not allowing the ship to dock and be dealt with in safer ways.

More from The Indian Express

The Indian Express
The Indian Express
image beaconimage beaconimage beacon