Why Brazil wants to sink its largest-ever warship

Sold to a Turkish scrapyard in 2021 and on its way to being dismantled, the Sao Paulo was sent back after environmental groups raised questions about levels of the toxic material asbestos aboard it. Refused entry by Brazil port officials and the country’s navy, it has been in international waters

FP Explainers February 03, 2023 15:12:29 IST
Why Brazil wants to sink its largest-ever warship

The Sao Paulo at sea in 2006. Image courtesy: Wikimedia Commons

Brazil’s biggest warship has turned into a headache – leaving the country faced with the difficult option of sinking it.

The Sao Paulo, a sixty-year-old decommissioned warship, is going to be sunk after Brazil was unable to find a port willing to take it in.

“Given the situation and the growing risk of towing (the ship), in light of the deteriorating buoyancy of the hull and the inevitability of a spontaneous, uncontrolled sinking, there is no option but to jettison it in a planned, controlled sinking,” Brazil’s navy and defence ministry said.

The decision has come under attack by environmentalists who say the carrier has tonnes of asbestos, heavy metals and other toxic materials that could leach into the water and pollute the marine food chain.

Let’s take a closer look:

What do we know about the Sao Paulo?

The Sao Paulo, which weighs 34,000 tons and is 870 feet long, is Brazil’s largest-ever warship.

The Clemenceau-class aircraft carrier previously served the French Navy from 1963 to 2000 as the Foch.

It took part in France’s first nuclear tests in the Pacific in the 1960s, and deployments in Africa, the Middle East and the former Yugoslavia from the 1970s to 1990s.

The French replaced the Foch with the nuclear-powered Charles de Gaulle aircraft carrier, as per the website Military Today.

The French then decommissioned the Foch and sold it to Brazil in 2000 for $12 million.

The ship, which was then christened the Sao Paulo after being refitted, replaced the Brazilian Minas Gerias, a former British Colossus class aircraft carrier.

It is capable of carrying 40 aircraft and helicopters. It has two catapults and two elevators to lift aircraft to the flight deck, as per the website.

In 2005, a fire broke out on board, accelerating the decline in the already aging ship.

What’s the problem?

The ship has been floating in the South Atlantic Ocean for months after being decommissioned.

In 2021, Brazil sold the Sao Paulo to a Turkish shipyard, as per Time Magazine.

It authorised Turkish firm Sok Denizcilik to dismantle the Sao Paulo for scrap metal.

Sok Denizcilik purchased the ship for $1.8 million at an auction, as per The New York Times.

Sok Denizcilik at the time said it was planning to recycle the vessel – carefully disposing any waste and selling non-toxic metals.

The Sao Paulo began its journey to Turkey from a naval base in Rio de Janeiro in August 2022.

Even as the ship made its way to Turkey, Sok Denizcilik came under pressure from environmental groups.

According to The New York Times, the trouble began after environmentalists questioned the ship inspectors’ reports of less than 10 tons of asbestos on the Sao Paulo.

Asbestos is a toxic mineral used in the creation of many 20th-Century ships.

Humans exposed to asbestos could suffer serious diseases such as lung cancer and asbestosis (which scars the lungs).

The navy said much of the asbestos had been removed in years, but offered no proof when asked for it.

In July, environmentalists reached out to a Norwegian company that had conducted the ship’s inventory.

“During the onboard survey, various places were sealed off and inaccessible for the surveyor,” Andreas Justad, a project manager at Grieg Green, responded.

He said the 10 tons of asbestos was merely an estimate.

“It could be a big gap from the actual amount existing on board versus the findings,” he added.

Environmentalists predictably raised hell.

Suddenly, an under-pressure Turkey decided that the ship was an environmental hazard.

As per Time Magazine, Turkey claimed Brazil had not proved the ship was asbestos free.

The ship did not get past the Gibraltar straits, and was returned across the Atlantic.

But then the Brazilians decided they didn’t want it either.

As per The New York Times, by now, the ship was in need of maintenance. But the navy, not offering any reason, demurred in offering up its own bases.

By then damage had begun to appear in the ship’s hull

On 20 January, the ship was sent to international waters.

The navy in January said in a statement that the ship is taking on water and is at risk of sinking, so it has not been allowed to dock at Brazilian ports.

Despite a request by Environment Minister Marina Silva not to sink the carrier, the navy said it had no choice but to scuttle the ship in water about 5,000 meters deep 350 kilometers off-shore within Brazil’s exclusive economic zone.

The site is far from environmental protection areas and free of undersea communication cables, the navy statement said.

“Given its deteriorating floating condition and the inevitability of uncontrolled sinking, there is no other option but to jettison the hull and sink it in a planned way,” it said.

The navy had planned to scuttle the carrier on Wednesday at sea but public prosecutors sought to stop the sinking in Brazilian waters citing the environmental threat it poses, including tonnes of asbestos used for paneling inside the ship.

A federal judge on Wednesday afternoon denied their request for an injunction arguing that the navy had weighed the environmental impact against other factors.

The navy has not said when it plans to scuttle the ship.

Meanwhile, environmentalists have raised an outcry.

The director of the Basel Action Network (BAN), Jim Puckett, accused Brazil’s navy of “gross negligence.”

“We’re talking about a ship containing both hazardous materials and valuable materials — it’s supposed to be brought into the territory of Brazil and managed in an environmentally sound way,” Puckett told Time.

“You can’t just sink it.”

“If they proceed with dumping the very toxic vessel into the wilderness of the Atlantic Ocean, they will violate the terms of three international environmental treaties,” he added in a statement.

Puckett urged President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva — who took office last month vowing to reverse surging environmental destruction under far-right ex-president Jair Bolsonaro — to immediately halt the “dangerous” plan.

French environmental group Robin des Bois meanwhile called the ship a “30,000-tonne toxic package.”

With inputs from agencies

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