Deadly vessel

Published : Jan 15, 2010 00:00 IST

THE storm over the decommissioned former French aircraft carrier Clemenceau, which left the French shores on December 31, 2005, for being dismantled at a shipbreaking yard at Alang, Gujarat, may pass, but the issues surrounding it may force it to remain at sea longer than expected.

As the controversy over the 27,300-tonne ship, said to be carrying tonnes of toxic waste, continued to rage, the moral and ethical dimension of the Clemenceau debate became loud and clear: Is it acceptable that France avoids the high costs and responsibility of properly disposing of the hazardous substances contained in the ship, and expose the cheap labour available in developing countries such as India to serious health risks in the process of dismantling and decontaminating it?

G. Thyagarajan, Chairman of the Supreme Court Monitoring Committee (SCMC), set the tone of the debate during his interaction with the media on January 20, as the SCMC heard the various parties to the controversy in New Delhi to decide whether the ship could be permitted to enter the territorial waters of India. Clemenceau, he said, raised wider issues: Asbestos has been banned in 26 countries, including France. Therefore, is this ship necessary for us? Should we add hazardous substances from outside? Why not break it there in France? Why cant Alang be the yard for shipbuilding rather than shipbreaking? Should we spend our money to buy somebody elses problem? Are we to perform the last rites of dead ships here?

According to a press release issued by the French government, a contract for the dismantling and removal of asbestos from Clemenceau was first signed on October 20, 2003, and was then complemented by an amendment on June 23, 2004, between France and the SDIC [Shipping Decommissioning Industry Corporation, the Panama-registered company that acquired the ship]. The fact that the release mentions only asbestos and not other hazardous substances is significant. According to the Basel Action Network (BAN), the ship may contain substantial amounts of PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls) in the paints, gaskets, insulation and wiring. Likewise, heavy metals such as lead are expected to be present in the materials on board the ship, it says. Martin Besieux of Greenpeace Internationale told the SCMC on January 20: Full destruction and not disposal or recycling of PCBs is required under the Stockholm Convention, but India does not possess such PCB destruction technology.

Technopure, a company recognised by the French government for the purpose of asbestos removal, initially made a proposal to the SDIC for decontaminating the ship for 6.3 million euros. The proposal was for decontaminating all the visible, accessible and friable parts of the ship. However, at the request of the SDIC, a less expensive proposal valued at 3 million euros was submitted, accepted by the SDIC, and executed. Under this revised proposal, only certain parts of the ship were covered for decontamination. Neither the French government nor the SDIC explained the rationale for this revised proposal.

Technopure told the SCMC on January 6 at its meeting in Mumbai that it removed 70 tonnes of asbestos-contaminated waste from the ship. It stated that there was still a minimum of 500 tonnes of asbestos-contaminated materials remaining on board. It also informed the SCMC that much of this material could and should have been removed in France before sending it to be broken up.

The French government contradicted Technopures claims by suggesting that the weight of asbestos and asbestos products on the Clemenceaus hull in 2003 was estimated at 215 tonnes. This figure was rounded up to 220 tonnes for safe margin. The initial phase of decontamination of the vessel, it claimed, showed that the funnel lagging was made of fibre glass and not asbestos. As the weight of the funnel was 60 tonnes, this was deducted from the original estimate of the weight of the asbestos.

This admission by the French government is proof enough that it has failed to meet its own commitment to the SCMC through the importer that 98 per cent of the asbestos-contaminated materials would be removed.

The French government has apparently offered to the SCMC to send its engineers to supervise the decontamination work and even take back the wastes. But apprehensions remain. If the volume of residual pollutants is huge, the capacity of Indian workers to decontaminate them even under French supervision and with safety equipment without sufficient training and awareness is doubtful.

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