Troubled voyage

Print edition : February 10, 2006

France settled on Alang after failing to find a ship-breaking yard in Europe willing to take Clemenceau.


Workers aboard Clemenceau at Toulon in November 2004.-CLAUDE PARIS/AP

CLEMENCEAU, the French Navy's former flagship, has been mired in controversy since its decommissioning in 1997. Loaded with asbestos and other toxic wastes, the ship has had a strange odyssey - unwanted across Europe, turned back by Greece and Turkey, it has been compared to Richard Wagner's phantom ship in the opera The Flying Dutchman, condemned to wander from shore to shore without ever docking.

Failing to find an adequate shipyard in Europe willing to take the decommissioned aircraft-carrier for dismantling, the French authorities cast their net wider and settled on Alang, on the Gujarat coast. Controversy has dogged the vessel ever since. Environmental activists are agitated that the French authorities and the agencies associated with the ship have not revealed the exact amount of asbestos on board. Initially, a senior member of the French Defence Minister's staff stated there was 220 tonnes of asbestos on board, of which 198 tonnes or 90 per cent would be removed in France. The remaining 22 tonnes, which could not be taken out without damaging the structure and the seaworthiness of the vessel, was to be decontaminated in India.

Shree Ram Vessel Scrap Pvt Ltd, the Indian ship-breaking company that acquired Clemenceau from the Ship Decommissioning Industry Corporation (SDIC), the Panama-registered private company retained by the French state to dispose of the ship, gave certain guarantees in its deposition before the Supreme Court Monitoring Committee on Hazardous Waste (SCMC) on February 2, 2005.

The following is an excerpt from the minutes of the eighth meeting of the SCMC dated March 22, 2005: "Shree Ram Vessel Scrap Pvt. Ltd. informed the committee that the vessel with all duties (including customs) was a Rs.40-crore transaction... . They indicated that 98 per cent of the asbestos is being removed in France and treated. The remaining 2 per cent is within the ship and cannot be removed without destroying its integrity. Since it is within the ship and part of its structure it cannot be declared a waste. It becomes a waste only after stripping in India. To a specific query they admitted that the asbestos in the ship could be in the region of between 10-15 tonnes... . The ship would come with documents that would indicate precisely where the balance asbestos would be located... ."

It now appears that only 115 tonnes of asbestos has been removed out of a fresh, scaled-down estimate of 160 tonnes, a far cry from the 98 per cent removal initially promised by the French government as per the deposition of Shree Ram Vessels Scrap.

According to estimates given by Vice-Admiral Forissier and Briac Beilvert, chief executive officer of the SDIC, which signed a contract with the French state to acquire the ship, 45 tonnes of asbestos still remains on board.

Greenpeace, Ban Asbestos and other environmental agencies have denounced what they call France's "callous and cynical toxic waste dumping". They say the ship should be completely cleaned and decontaminated in France before sending it on to India where the working conditions in shipyards are appalling. They accuse the French government of hiding the exact amount of asbestos concealed in Clemenceau's depths in order to save a paltry five to eight million euros.

Beilvert refused to disclose the exact location of the asbestos, citing confidentiality clauses. He said his Indian partners were being "kept up to date" about the decontamination work undertaken. However, none of the parties who should, by law, have received an inventory of the exact amount and location of the asbestos on board has received it - namely, the Gujarat Maritime Board, the Gujarat Pollution Control Board, Shree Ram Vessels Scrap, the Luthra Group (whose subsidiary is to carry out the final decontamination), and the SCMC.

"It is unthinkable that the French government is preparing to allow such a contaminated ship to be sent to India for dismantling where shipbreaking yards are not properly equipped to deal with toxic wastes," Pascal Husting, executing director of Greenpeace, France, told Frontline in a telephonic interview.

The French government is a signatory to the Basel Convention of 1989 on the export of toxic waste. The convention defines waste as "substances or objects which are disposed of or are intended to be disposed of or are required to be disposed of by the provisions of national law". France's stated case is that the Basel Convention regulations do no apply to "war material", a stand upheld by French courts. "The French government under its commitments cannot allow the ship to leave in this condition," Husting said.

A view apparently shared by Dr. G. Thyagarajan, Chairman of the SCMC, who said: "My position is there should be no import and export of hazardous substances and no exceptions should be made to that rule. We expect that countries belonging to the OECD [Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development] such as France, which are signatories to the Basel Convention, have a moral responsibility to ensure that they do not allow anything containing hazardous materials to be sent to friendly countries."

Environmental activists lobbied hard to stop the ship from leaving for India. In a last-ditch attempt to keep Clemenceau in France, four non-governmental organisations, including Ban Asbestos and Greenpeace, moved the administrative court in Paris arguing that the ship itself, denuded of its armaments and locomotive power, was now a mere container carrying pollutants and hazardous materials and not "war material" as claimed by the French government.

Throwing out their case, the court accepted the government's arguments that the ship, which is just a shell, continued to be a warship until the moment of dismantling and therefore exempt from the ban on the export of hazardous materials as laid down by the Basel Convention.

As the ship left Toulon harbour on December 31, there was a fresh twist to the Clemenceau saga. Jean-Claude Giannino, head of Technopure, the company which carried out the first phase of decontamination, told this reporter that there was anywhere between 500 - 1,000 tonnes of asbestos on board the ship and that the French authorities and the SDIC could have removed far more than the 115 tonnes they say they have removed.

"The first detailed note I received from the SDIC on the state of Clemenceau indicated there was at least 200 tonnes of asbestos on board. My company has removed 70 tonnes of material from the ship for which we have proof from the landfill. A lot more than 115 tonnes could have been removed without damaging the structure or the seaworthiness of the ship. For instance the funnel, lateral catapults and other areas of the ship could have been cleaned out or dismantled as could the decks - 30,000 square feet - without jeopardising the ship's structure. The estimation of my engineers is that there is 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."

The French Navy and the SDIC insist that they are setting up "an industrial process that could be replicated in other countries whereby asbestos could be safely and scientifically removed with full protection of the environment and the workers".

Richard Moisy, technical director of the SDIC, told this reporter in Toulon that he had "full confidence in the Luthra Group and Shree Ram Vessels Scrap Pvt Ltd. who are to carry out the decontamination work in India". The French say they have trained Indian engineers and provided the necessary protective clothing and equipment for Indian workers so that the asbestos can be removed safely, without risk to human life. The French Defence Ministry also dismissed as "pure fantasy" the charges levelled by Technopure.

Giannino, however, would not be deterred. He confirmed that his company had made two proposals to the SDIC for cleaning up the ship. The first contract, a quotation for three million euros, proposed superficial decontamination, while the second contract, for six million euros, proposed more major decontamination work. Documents obtained by this reporter indicate that the French government had in fact received two price quotations from Technopure and chose to retain the cheaper option. This clearly indicates that far more could have been done and that economics has played a key role in how much asbestos has been removed.

Giannino also affirmed that his company had, at its own initiative, ended its contract with the SDIC. "Our contract stipulated that we would set up an industrial process for decontamination in India according to the norms prevalent in France. We were to train Indian engineers for that purpose. But not a single engineer turned up despite repeated requests. I realised that the SDIC wanted only a cover-up and had no intention of doing a serious job. We therefore ended the contract."

Eric Baudon, the sales and project manager of Technopure, told this reporter: "We have made a fairly detailed analysis of the ship and I can give you a list of the asbestos that could have been removed without much difficulty. These items have no bearing on the structure or the navigability of the ship. There is glue with asbestos and paint with asbestos, known as Bitumastic and Bitulatex. The floors are covered with it and there is at least 125 tonnes of asbestos on the floors alone. There are three hundred tonnes of cables that contain both lead and asbestos. These too could have been removed with no damage to the structure.... The boilers are full of asbestos - between 70 to 100 tonnes. The collectors on top of the boilers and the pipes within the funnels also contain asbestos and could have been safely removed."

Further proof that Clemenceau is and has been a toxic ship was given by sailors and mechanics who served on it. They now suffer from asbestosis and various respiratory diseases. Several people have died.

"I gave seventeen and a half years of my life to Clemenceau and her sister-ship Foch and when I developed asbestosis the Navy said to me: `You cannot prove there was asbestos on those ships!' Their patent bad faith stunned me. Well, I did prove it and proved it so well, they dropped their appeal. My case made medico-legal history, set a precedent, created jurisprudence. How could they say there was no proof? I was working in some of the hottest areas of the ship - operating the steam chambers where the temperature was as high as 300{+0} to 400{+0} Celsius. I also worked on the forward catapults and looked after the heating and the engines. These were the areas that had the most asbestos! I was 55 and at the height of my capabilities. The news shattered me of course. I had a severely handicapped wife and young children to bring up. But I was convinced I had to help others like myself. I started this association in 1999. We were just a handful of members then. Now there are 1,200 members of whom 1,150 are asbestosis sufferers," Etienne Le Guilcher president of ADDEVA, the Association of Asbestos Victims, told this reporter at his office in the ship-building town of Brest.

Despite the fact that the dangers posed by asbestos were well known in the late 1970s, it was only in 1997 that France banned the substance and that too after intense pressure from NGOs. "Already in 1977 there was a note in the DCN [Department of Naval Construction] saying that workers should wear masks. But the protection they provided us was derisory. Everyone knew of the hazards and once again money interests took precedence over the lives of workers. The story of asbestos in France is a scandal. By 2015 there will be 100,000 deaths due to asbestos poisoning. And all this could have been prevented if the government had acted much earlier. Ever since I started this association I have seen some 150 deaths, some of them were close friends," Le Guilcher said.

There have been several high-profile anti-asbestos trials in France and a recent Senate report rapped the French government for deliberately ignoring, under pressure from the asbestos lobby in the country, the dangers posed by the substance.

The National Association for the Victims of Asbestos Poisoning in France and shipyard workers unions have been calling for a full decontamination and dismantling of Clemenceau in France. In a letter dated December 10, 2003, and addressed to Admiral Jean-Louis Battet, the then Chief of French Naval Staff, the Federation of Public Sector Workers (FNTE) and the CGT (Confederation General of Workers) described the government's handling of Clemenceau as "more amateurish than serious".

The letter states that for long the workers' unions have called for the creation of a specific site within a naval base where end-of-life warships could be dismantled safely without damage to human lives or the environment. In another letter addressed on December 20, 2004, to the Defence Minister, several workers' organisations called into question the decision to send the ship to India for dismantling.

Clemenceau is currently held up in Egypt, at the mouth of the Suez Canal, where the government has called for an additional inspection by a freshly named three-member commission. As matters stand, the SCMC has chosen not to allow the ship into Indian waters until February 13, when the court is to take a final decision.

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