France reclaims toxic ship

Feature story - 27 October, 2003
After being caught illegally exporting ships containing hazardous waste to Turkey, the French military has seized a former french aircraft carrier they had sold for scrapping. This high seas tale exposes again the underhand tactics and cost cutting of some sections of the shipping industry at the expense of the environment and workers' health.

View of ship breaking yard where hazardous materials onboard ships cause pollution and endanger workers.

The French Government has been sending old ships to Turkey for scrapping for years. It costs less to have the ships scrapped in a country where weak laws allow the toxic waste onboard to pollute the environment, and lax safety regulations endanger workers' health. However, last year Turkey banned the import of these toxic ships for scrap from France. Now forced to do what it should have been doing all along - cleaning hazardous materials from ships before sending them for scrapping - the French authorities have discovered that if there is profit to be made, rules soon fall by the wayside.

The aircraft carrier Clemençeau was sold for scrapping to a buyer who first agreed to decontaminate the ship in Spain. To remove the large amounts of toxic wastes such as asbestos and PCB, the buyers declared that they would first take the vessel to the port of Gijon in northern Spain for decontamination. The vessel would then be scrapped in Bilbao, Spain.

The ship left the port of Toulon on 13 October 2003. However, it didn't head for Spain. Instead, the new owners apparently decided to skip the promised clean up, and make a quicker buck by selling the aircraft carrier direct to a Turkish scrap yard.

Not wanting to be exposed to the sort of bad publicity that surrounded a similar case, the "Sea Beirut," the French authorities decided to take action. Because of the lack of the proper clearance for export, the French military boarded the former French military ship off the island of Sicily to halt its progress to Turkey.

Prompt action prevented the new ship owners from getting away with it. But this story is the exception -- not the rule.

"It seems like French authorities have learned from the Sea Beirut case, where Turkish authorities and court confirmed that it is illegal to send toxic ships for scrap to Turkey without being decontaminated first. We appreciate the action taken by the French authorities but the French toxic ship Sea Beirut is still lying at Aliaga shipbreaking yards waiting to be taken back to France. This illegal trade will continue unless the shipping industry is enforced to clean their vessels of hazardous materials before they are exported" said our campaigner in Turkey, Erdem Vadar.

Around 600 ships are being scrapped annually, up to 100 of them in Turkey. More than half come from western European shipping companies. The costs for dismantling toxic ships in Turkey and other developing countries are lower than in western Europe because shipbreaking yards such as Aliaga put no investment into meeting health or environmental regulations.

We are campaigning for international law to prevent rich ship owners from dumping toxic ships on poorer countries. We believe all ships must be cleaned before export for scrapping.

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