Monetizing Their Mistakes: Paying for the São Paulo Debacle
The Brazilian Navy should never have off-loaded its toxic flagship on an overseas buyer. The Turkish buyer and its sub-contractors should not have undertaken to scrap the aircraft carrier at an Aliağa shipyard in contravention of international protocols. Military officials shouldnt have stonewalled attempts to find a safe berth in Brazil for the disgraced ship.1 Staff at the Brazilian Institute of Environment and Renewable Natural Resources should not have turned a blind eye to decisions being taken behind closed doors.2 And yet they did.
The sinking of the São Paulo on February 3, 2023 was predictable; in fact, such a fate for the ship had been foreseen months earlier by ban asbestos campaigner Fernanda Giannasi, who had communicated her thoughts to both colleagues and officials. In comments made on a primetime news program earlier this year, Ms. Giannasi warned of a possible environmental disaster should the ship be scuttled. It seems that at least one Minister, some civil servants and several lawyers agreed with her.3 Unfortunately the decision-makers responsible for this environmental betrayal, not blessed with long-term vision nor burdened by a commitment to protecting the marine environment, had simply run out of patience: better to bury their mistakes 5,000 meters under the sea than be plagued by a seemingly insoluble and costly problem.4
It seems, however, that the Navys plan to rid itself of this embarrassing hot potato believed to be contaminated with asbestos, PCBs, lead/cadmium paint as well as traces of radioactive material was doomed to fail. And so, the saga of the São Paulo rolls on. Last Friday (April 14, 2023), the Attorney General (AGU) of the Brazilian State of Pernambuco demanded compensation of R$322 million (US$65,582,795)5 for environmental, operational and moral damages from four companies and their directors who, it was alleged, had abandoned the São Paulo on the high seas.6 As a result of their actions and omissions, the ship was deliberately sunk by the Navy 350 kilometers off the coast of Pernambuco in February 2023 after spending several months adrift, having been unable to find a port willing to offer a safe haven.
Commenting on the reasons for this legal action, Attorney General Jorge Messias said:
The owner, the person in charge of the vessel, its assignee and the insurer, as well as the owners of the cargo, are jointly and severally liable for damages that may be caused, directly or indirectly, to the safety of navigation and the environment No one can cause environmental damage of this magnitude and not answer for it. We hope that this action will be pedagogical so that people and companies understand that environmental infringement does not pay, and so that episodes like this are never repeated in Brazil.7
According to the legal documents filed by the AGU with the 9th Federal Court of Pernambuco, the vessel: contained toxic substances such as asbestos, [which] could have serious impact on the environment 8 Compensation obtained as a result of this lawsuit would, says the AGU, go to a fund dedicated to protecting the marine environment.
The defendants in Pernambucos public civil action were:
This isnt the first lawsuit to be filed over the São Paulo; it most certainly wont be the last. The sinking of its former flagship will haunt Brazil for decades to come and the bill for defending the countrys actions and reputation at home and abroad will be colossal.
April 20, 2023
1 Kazan-Allen, L. São Paulo Blame Game. October 11, 2022.
Kazan-Allen, L. The São Paulo: International Hot Potato. September 1, 2022.
2 The Instituto Brasileiro do Meio Ambiente e dos Recursos Naturais Renováveis (IBAMA) is a federal agency under the Ministry of Environment and the Basel Convention Competent Authority in Brazil.
3 Kazan-Allen, L. The Sinking of the São Paulo. February 6, 2023.
4 Entenda como amianto influenciou no cálculo de R$322 milhões em pedido de indenização por abandono de porta-aviões [Understand how asbestos influenced the calculation of R$322 million in compensation claims for aircraft carrier abandonment]. April 14, 2023.
5 The breakdown of the R$322 million damages were: R$177.8 million for damages to the natural environment caused by the presence of toxic materials on-board; R$37.2 million to cover the Navy's expenses including the costs associated with the sinking of the ship; R$107.5 million for collective moral damages.
6 Maia, Fl. AGU pede R$322 milhões de indenização às empresas responsáveis pelo navio com amianto [AGU requests R$322 million in compensation from the companies responsible for the ship with asbestos]. April 13, 2023
7 AGU pede R$322 milhões às empresas de porta-aviões desativado [AGU asks R$322 million from decommissioned aircraft carrier companies]. April 15, 2023.
8 Ferraz, A. AGU pede R$322 milhões de indenização de empresas que abandonaram porta-aviões no litoral de Pernambuco [AGU asks for R$322 million in compensation from companies that abandoned aircraft carriers off the coast of Pernambuco]. April 14, 2023.