São Paulo Blame Game  

by Laurie Kazan-Allen



Whose responsibility is the floating can of worms which is the São Paulo? At 32,800 tonnes fully loaded, Brazil’s 265 meter long former flagship has now become a symbol of government malfeasance and criminality. The Brazilian Navy, duplicating the actions of its French counterpart (2000),1 had hoped to rid itself of a toxic hot potato by off-loading the vessel to a new owner. Clearly, the Latin phrase “caveat emptor” (buyer beware) was not part of the lexicon of Sök Denizcilik, the Turkish shipyard which bought the São Paulo in 2021 for BRL 10.5 million (~US$2m) despite the fact that it was likely to contain asbestos, PCBs, lead/cadmium paint as well as traces of radioactive material.2


The auctioning of the São Paulo took place under a veil of secrecy with, so it appeared, the naval authorities in cahoots with staff at the Brazilian Institute of Environment and Renewable Natural Resources [Instituto Brasileiro do Meio Ambiente e dos Recursos Naturais Renováveis /IBAMA], a federal agency under the Ministry of Environment and the Basel Convention Competent Authority in Brazil.

Given the embarrassing and highly publicized failure of Brazil to dump the ship in Turkey, erstwhile enemies as well as former allies have firmed up their defenses whilst attacking those of the other actors in this deadly pantomime. In a press release issued on October 6, 2022, naval authorities reaffirmed that as they had “followed with zeal and prudence, the administrative processes and procedures,” they had no responsibility for the many problems which had arisen. According to the Brazilian Navy:

  • it was down to Sök Denizcilik, the ship’s owner, to do what was needed in order to “reestablish the export process;”3
  • the company Oceans Prime Offshore, under contract to Sök Denizcilik, was responsible for complying with Brazilian and international protocols;4
  • IBAMA and the Turkish environmental agency had joint responsibility with the ship’s Turkish owners to “reestablish the export process.”5

Sök Denizcilik blamed the Brazilian Government for failing to provide a place for the ship to dock when it arrived back in Brazilian territorial waters – on October 5, 2022 the Pernambuco Environment Agency refused permission for the São Paulo to dock at the Port of Suape.6 In multiple articles, a spokesperson for Sök Denizcilik censured the French Government, pointing out that France, “the producer of the [toxic] waste… is simply ignoring its responsibility.”7

On October 6, 2022, an email was sent by Celal Yigit, the owner of Sök Denizcilik, to Juliette Kohler, a legal and policy advisor at the United Nations, officials at the Basel, Rotterdam and Stockholm Conventions and French Ministry for Sustainable Development. It was carbon copied to more than two dozen other email addresses including those of personnel in the governments of Turkey, France, Brazil and the United Nations. The subject header was: Urgent Safe Berth Place Requirement for São Paulo. In the message Yigit complained of the lack of practical support:

“…nobody is taking the responsibility nor assisting to find a safe location for berthing the vessel. The Navy suggested [to] us some private shipyards but we have been refused by all of them. In addition, we have contracted several ports for berthing service but none of them is accepting the vessel.”

Meanwhile, back in Ankara, the Turkish Ministry blamed the shipowner for the lack of an adequate Inventory of Hazardous Materials.8

With all the brickbats flying about, the plight of the crew on the tugboat Alp Center – according to our information, there are no sailors on the São Paulo – who have been at sea for over two months has been all but forgotten.9 An investigation has been launched this month by Brazil’s Public Ministry of Labor to assess the safety and health conditions on board. On October 7, a shipment of food, water and supplies was delivered by speedboat to the tug at the request of the vessel’s Dutch owner; the resupply exercise necessitated a seven-hour trip to the Alp Center which was at that time “in a maritime area on the coast of the state of Pernambuco.” A meeting organized by the MPT to progress its enquiries was held on October 10, 2022.

Commenting on the current situation, spokesperson for the Brazilian Association of Asbestos Victims (ABREA) Fernanda Giannasi said:

“The secrecy over who is on the Alp Center tugboat is just one more question waiting to be answered. From the beginning of this debacle, the Brazilian Navy and IBAMA chose to keep civil society stakeholders in the dark about the tendering process, the compliance with national and international protocols and sundry other issues relating to the export of a ship known to be full of substances banned in many countries. The concern of ABREA members led us to contact officials at the Public Ministry of Labor who are now acting to ensure the safety of those crew members on the tugboat. The situation of the São Paulo is perilous and whilst a sinking at sea might be the shipowner’s hope, it would create an environmental disaster which must be avoided at all costs.”10

October 11, 2022


1 The São Paulo, formerly known as the Foch, was purchased by Brazil in 2000 from France for US$ 12 million.
Marinha do Brasil diz que amianto presente no casco do NAe São Paulo não oferece riscos [Brazilian Navy says that asbestos present in the hull of the NAe São Paulo poses no risks]. October 6,2022.

2 Kazan-Allen, L. International Mystery – Where is the São Paulo? August 9, 2022.
Kazan-Allen, L. The São Paulo: International Hot Potato. September 1, 2022.

3 Asbestli Gemi Brezilya Açıklarında Bekletiliyor [Asbestos Ship Held Off Brazil]. October 9, 2022.

4 PDF Press Release. Brazilian Navy. October 6, 2022.

5 Ibid.

6 Pernambuco impede que sucata de porta-aviões com resíduos tóxicos atraque em Suape [Pernambuco prevents scrap from aircraft carrier with toxic waste from docking in Suape]. October 5, 2022.

7 Turca critica governo brasileiro por porta-aviões [Turks criticize Brazilian government over aircraft carrier]. October 6, 2022.

8 Marinha do Brasil diz que amianto presente no casco do NAe São Paulo não oferece riscos [Brazilian Navy says that asbestos present in the hull of the NAe São Paulo poses no risks].

9 There is no official information on the size of the crew, or if there are Brazilians on the tugboat.
Entenda por que o porta-aviões São Paulo corre o riscó de acabar abandonado em alto-mar [Understanding why the aircraft carrier Sao Paulo is at risk of being abandoned on the high seas]. October 7, 2022
Tripulação do porta-aviões São Paulo recebe suprimentos em alto mar; MPT investiga condição de saúde e segurança dos funcionários [Crew of the aircraft carrier São Paulo receives supplies on the high seas; MPT investigates employee health and safety conditions]. October 7, 2022.

10 Email received from Fernanda Giannasi. October 10, 2022



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