Le Clemenceau: Action and Reaction
The decommissioning of Le Clemenceau, formerly one of the French navy's most prestigious ships, is turning into a nightmare for a government eager to profit from one of the world's dirtiest industries: the scrapping of toxic ships by workers in Asian countries. French efforts to side-step international protocols and global agreements1 preventing countries from exporting hazardous waste have been frustrated by the campaigning efforts of Ban Asbestos France and Greenpeace working closely with members of an NGO Platform for Clean Ship-breaking.2 For months, legal proceedings kept the ship berthed in the French port of Toulon. On December 31, 2005, an Administrative Court cleared the way for the redundant aircraft carrier to depart for the scrapyards in Alang, India via the Suez Canal.3
The problem is that while the 22,000 tonnes of steel on-board are worth eight million euros, the ship is riddled with asbestos, PCBs, lead and mercury, Journalist Chetan Chauhan described the situation as follows:
The ship is pure poison. And is on its way to India to die a toxic death.
Shailender Yashwant, Campaign Director for Greenpeace, agrees:
It is highly toxic and workers (in Alang) stand the risk of being exposed to contamination as they are not provided safety kits. The work is the worst form of manual labour. Developed nations cannot throw their junk into the developing world for the sake of economics.
In France, the Government has lied to contractors, the public, the courts and the media about the levels of pollution on-board; it has also lied to the Egyptian and Indian Governments. Initially the Government maintained that the ship contained a maximum of 160-200 tonnes of asbestos. This lie was exposed by none-other than the head of the company tasked with removing asbestos from the ship during preliminary work at the Toulon dockyard; Jean-Claude Gianino, who broke the confidentiality clause in his contract on moral grounds, told The Hindu newspaper that the situation was much worse than he had been led to believe:
The estimation of my engineers is that there is far, far more asbestos on board than anyone could imagine. I can say with certainty that the ship contains over 500 tonnes of asbestos. And once dismantling begins that could go up to 1,000 tonnes.4
On January 12, 2006, Greenpeace activists boarded the ship 50 nautical miles off the coast of Egypt. Once on-board they scaled the mast and unfurled a banner which said: Asbestos Carrier: Stay out of India. Other activists buzzed the deck with a motorized paraglider and a banner saying: Not Here. Not Anywhere. As part of an international day of action, protests were also held in Bangladesh, Switzerland and France.
According to Greenpeace, half of the world's ocean-going ships wind up in the Indian ship-breakers yards;5 others find their way to Bangladesh, China and Pakistan:
In most ship-breaking nations proper waste management is absent. There are no rules and regulations. And where rules exist, they're unlikely to be enforced.
On January 7, 2006, India's Supreme Court Monitoring Committee on Hazardous Waste Management declared that the French warship should not enter India's sovereign territory. Dr. G. Thyagarajan, Chairman of this Committee, ruled that any transnational movement of hazardous waste violated the Basel Convention: If India accepts the ship, then India will be seen as abetting a violation of the Basel Convention Why should we sacrifice our precious soil to bury some other country's (hazardous) junk?6 On January 12th, the Egyptian Government made its concerns known; Mahmoud Ismail, the National Coordinator of Egypt's Environmental Affairs Agency, warned that the ship would be barred from the Suez Canal in the absence of written evidence from France and India that proved the Clemenceau's transit was not a breach of the Basel Convention.
According to a spokesperson for the Basel Action Network (BAN), Jim Puckett:
France has repeatedly tried to evade its responsibility regarding the Clemenceau. Their standards for handling asbestos are amongst the highest in the world. But instead of investing in safe removal and disposal of the asbestos on the Clemenceau, they are trying to dupe the Indian Government, and dump their toxic wastes onto the poorest of the poor of the world. This is absolutely reprehensible; certainly not the kind of attitude one would expect of a supposedly civilized nation!7
January 13, 2006
1 These include: the Basel Convention on the control of transnational movements of waste, European regulations regulating the export of waste, rules concerning the export of waste in the Environment Code and French Decree 96-1133 banning asbestos in France.
2 The groups which are part of this platform are: Greenpeace, the International Federation for Human Rights, the European Federation for Transport and Environment, North Sea Foundation, Bellona, the Ban Asbestos Network and the International Ban Asbestos Secretariat (see letter to EU Commissioner for Environment.
4 Basel Action Network. Briefing: France's Export of Decommissioned Aircraft Carrier Clemenceau in Violation of International and National Law. January 12, 2006.