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Toxic aircraft carrier São Paolo rejected by Türkiye returning to Brazil

Christian Fernsby |
The toxic waste-laden aircraft carrier São Paulo is on its way back to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

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IBAMA, the Brazilian Agency that had approved the export, was forced to recall the ship after Türkiye barred its entrance on August 26, 2022, pending a proper and credible accounting of the volumes of hazardous wastes on board, including asbestos, PCBs, toxic paints, and radioactive wastes.

Prior to this dramatic reversal, a broad coalition of civil society organisations and concerned citizens had raised the alarm about the final voyage of the massive vessel, alerting authorities in Brazil, Türkiye, and countries all over the Mediterranean region with numerous, detailed letters describing the illegality of the transboundary movement of the hazardous wastes onboard the ship.

The opposition against the export also manifested itself in large street protests in Aliağa, Izmir, and elsewhere in Türkiye. Additionally, the UK territory of Gibraltar had stated that it would disallow the passage of the ship through its territorial waters prior to Türkiye’s decision.

"It is gratifying to see that Türkiye took our concerns regarding the illegality of this shipment of hazardous wastes seriously," says Nicola Mulinaris of the NGO Shipbreaking Platform.

"We suspect that many of the old ships being landed and scrapped in Türkiye are not legal shipments according to the international waste trade treaties – the Basel and Barcelona Conventions."

Under the Basel Convention, inventories of hazardous materials must be accurate, and the environmentally sound management of the toxics assured. Further, under the Izmir Protocol of the Barcelona Convention, Türkiye is not allowed to import hazardous wastes into its territory.

So far, two suspect Inventories of Hazardous Materials (IHMs) have been submitted by Sök Denizcilik and Ticaret Limited, the buyer of the ship, despite the impossibility to access the majority of the ship’s structure to conduct a proper assessment. Both documents identify quantities of hazardous substances, such as asbestos and PCBs, far below the actual amounts found on SÃO PAULO’s sister ship CLEMENCEAU.

The latter was built with the same design and was found to contain hundreds of tons of asbestos and PCBs at the time of its recycling in the UK. The buyer’s claim of a reported 9 tons of asbestos, no PCBs, and radioactive residues on board the SÃO PAULO is thus seen as highly improbable.

Now, with the initial victory declared, the NGO Shipbreaking Platform, together with the Basel Action Network (BAN), BAN Asbestos France, the Henri Pézerat Association (Work, Health, Environment), International Ban Asbestos Secretariat (IBAS), İstanbul İSİG (İşçi Sağlığı ve İş Güvenliği) Meclisi, Greenpeace Mediterranean, and Brazilian ABREA (Associação Brasileira dos Expostos ao Amianto), is calling for a new independent IHM to be performed under the review of the French Government, and, importantly, for an entirely new auction to take place with only legal destinations participating.

When France sold the vessel to Brazil, the sale agreement specified that the ship could not be sent for dismantling without prior French approval.

Given the current circumstances, France should now assist IBAMA in making sure an impartial and objective assessment of the quantities of hazardous materials on board is carried out, and the removal of asbestos, PCBs, radioactive substances, and toxic paints is performed in full compliance with international and European rules aimed at protecting both workers and the environment from poor waste management practices.

Several European yards, equipped with state-of-the-art technologies, have been showing interest in properly managing the recycling of the vessel.

Additionally, a Brazilian organisation has been relentlessly campaigning for the conversion of the ship into a museum. Considering the illegality of the attempted transboundary movement and the buyer’s unreliable IHM submissions, Brazil is urged to start over, and initiate a new sale and be ready to consider alternative offers even if they are more expensive.

The SÃO PAULO is scheduled to arrive in Rio de Janeiro on October 4. According to the civil society groups, without a new accurate IHM, environmentally sound waste management plans, a new auction, and assurances of legal export, the ship must not be allowed to leave Brazil again.

"It is vital that the important job of managing our old toxic ships is done in accordance with international law and with the highest levels of care available on earth," says Asli Odman of Istanbul Health and Safety Labour Watch. "Türkiye certainly has no wish to be considered the world’s cheap and convenient waste dumping ground."

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