RIO DE JANEIRO — A decommissioned aircraft carrier, packed with an undetermined amount of asbestos, is being towed in circles off the coast of Brazil after it was refused permission to dock in Turkey for recycling. The problem? No government wants anything to do with it.
Now, the Brazilian Navy says it plans to just sink the ship, the São Paulo, a Clemenceau-class carrier purchased from France in 2000 for $12 million, planes and helicopters not included. Environmentalists say doing so would cause irreparable environmental damage and could be a violation of international law.
It would be “completely unexplainable and irrational” to sink the ship, said Jim Puckett, director of the Basel Action Network, an environmental nonprofit group based in Seattle that focuses on the global trade in toxic substances.
The story of São Paulo’s demise started when a Turkish company called Sok Denizcilik bought the ship for just over $1.8 million in an auction in 2021. Its goal was to recycle the vessel, disposing of any waste responsibly while making a profit salvaging and selling the tons of nontoxic metals it contained.
But the Turkish company’s plans were met with protests from environmental groups that said the ship was carrying a lot more dangerous material than the company had disclosed.
The 873-foot vessel, which served in the French Navy under the name Foch from 1963 until it was sold in 2000, hadn’t been in service for roughly a decade. Some of its compartments have accumulated so much dangerous gas that it is now unsafe to enter them, inspectors said.
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Decades ago, when the ship was laid down, there was less understanding and probably less concern about the severe health problems some construction materials could cause. Asbestos, a fire retardant that was commonly used back then, was later found to be a potent carcinogen.
The lead ship of the class, Clemenceau, was dismantled and recycled in the 2000s after a similarly contentious struggle with environmentalists.
The French authorities reported 45 tons of asbestos aboard Clemenceau, but environmental groups said they had evidence that it contained much more. The vessel was en route to a breaking yard in India when a French court ordered it to return to home waters. Clemenceau was eventually scrapped in Britain.
Problems with the São Paulo started when environmentalists grew suspicious because inspectors had reported less than 10 tons of asbestos aboard. The navy said a lot had been removed over the years, but environmentalists asked for proof. None was presented.
So, in July, activists contacted Grieg Green, a Norwegian company that had put together the ship’s inventory of hazardous materials, known as an I.H.M. The response confirmed some of their suspicions.
“During the onboard survey, various places were sealed off and inaccessible for the surveyor,” Andreas Justad, a project manager, wrote back. He said the amount of asbestos reported was only an estimate. “It could be a big gap from the actual amount existing on board versus the findings in the I.H.M.,” he said.
Within weeks, several environmental groups were putting pressure on the Turkish government to reject the ship. “We raised hell,” Mr. Puckett, the activist, said.
On Aug. 4, the decommissioned São Paulo started across the Atlantic under tow, on its way to the breaking yard in Turkey.
Meanwhile, the environmental campaign was picking up steam. Days after the ship departed, Turkish officials asked their Brazilian counterparts for a new inventory of hazardous substances. Dissatisfied with the response, Turkish officials canceled import permission.
The ship and its tug, which by then had reached Gibraltar, had to turn back. Environmental groups counted it as an enormous victory.
São Paulo’s journey, though, was far from over. As it approached Brazil in October, the navy ordered it to remain off the northeastern coast instead of returning to Rio de Janeiro, its port of departure.
At that point, after two trans-Atlantic crossings, the ship needed to dock for maintenance. But the environmental campaign had apparently worked too well. Spooked local officials in Brazil pressured ports not to take the ship, and it was repeatedly refused. The navy never offered its own bases, for reasons officials have never explained. So, the ship and the tug started doing circles.
Months passed, and, as minor damage started appearing in the hull, MSK Maritime Services & Trading, a partner in the recycling project with Sok Denizcilik, grew desperate. The company needed a harbor to patch up the damage, and the tugboat was guzzling 20 tons of fuel a day. By January, the MSK reported that it had lost $5 million on the venture.
Environmental groups said they were baffled that the navy wouldn’t take the ship back and was refusing to say why it wouldn’t. Under the Basel Convention, countries are required to re-import toxic waste that they are unable to successfully export. Activists say Brazil is violating the convention by not allowing the ship to dock. Officials deny this, on the grounds that the ship is in Brazilian waters.
The Brazilian Navy did not respond to repeated requests for comment for this article. In a prepared statement, it said that, despite no longer being the ship’s owner, it has followed the case with attention and that owners of the ship had so far not fulfilled the requirements for docking permission.
At a meeting in December, naval officials said they were concerned the ship would sink close to the coast and create a navigation hazard. So, they ordered it about 200 miles offshore.
In the same meeting, officials said they considered sinking the ship to be one of their few options.
A report in December said the ship was, at that time, seaworthy enough to be towed to a port. But a navy report from two weeks ago said that, although the vessel could last another month before sinking, it was too unstable to bring into coastal waters. So, on Wednesday night, officials announced plans to sink the ship. A navy release cited “deteriorating hull buoyancy conditions and the inevitability of spontaneous/uncontrolled sinking.”
In a statement in response to questions from The New York Times, IBAMA, Brazil’s environmental agency, said São Paulo’s chemicals could harm the ozone layer, cause the death of marine wildlife and deteriorate ecosystems in important marine biodiversity hot spots.
Even if São Paulo was unwelcome in ports around the world, the ship will not meet its end totally unloved.
For five years, Emerson Miura, a veteran of the Brazilian Air Force, had been working on a project to turn the São Paulo into a floating museum. He was mostly ignored by the navy, but he hoped until the last days that the admirals would have a change of heart.
“Our idea was to rescue patriotism, our pride of being Brazilian,” he said. “Brazil doesn’t take care of its history.”