On Friday, February 3, the Brazilian Navy announced that it had sunk NAe São Paulo, the old French aircraft carrier Foch, which it had purchased in 2000. The ship was found to be full of asbestos, paint, and other hazardous wastes when it was sunk in the Atlantic Ocean. Various environmental protection groups have questioned this decision.
Given the highly deteriorated state of this old 266-meter-long hull, the Brazilian Navy determined on Wednesday that it had no choice but to sink the ship, a former French Navy flagship. She reveals that the planned and managed shipwreck occurred late Friday afternoon roughly 350 kilometres from the Brazilian coast in a location approximately 5,000 metres deep.
A “30,000-ton package of toxins”
The Brazilian Federal Public Prosecutor’s Office, which attempted to halt the operation by filing multiple court challenges, issued a warning about the project’s environmental impact. It noted that the aircraft carrier held 9.6 tonnes of asbestos, a potentially poisonous and carcinogenic chemical, in addition to 644 tonnes of inks and other hazardous compounds.
The French Pride
Known as the Ambassador of its day, the Foch included a mixture of the metals considered the most hazardous at the time. Its original hull, 266 metres long, is laden with hazardous trash like asbestos, mercury, paints, hydrocarbon residues, PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls), and other chemicals, as reported by several organisations concerned with the environment. Norwegian company Grieg Green, consulted by the Brazilian media outlet Estadao de Sao Paulo, said the aircraft carrier contained 9.6 tonnes of asbestos and 644.7 tonnes of heavy metals in its paint as 10,000 mercury fluorescent lamps.
Nevertheless, the aircraft carrier was not always this anchor at the feet of the Brazilian government. It was launched in 1959 and served as the French Navy’s overseas representative for 37 years. The Saint-Nazaire shipyard product, which France has displayed like a tricolour flag in international waters, radiated national pride. Capable of launching 12 to 15-ton aircraft at 150 knots, the Foch participated in NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organisation) air operations in Yugoslavia in the spring of 1999. In 2001, Charles-de-Gaulle, the new nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, eclipsed the Foch and its sister ship, the Clemenceau.
An “out of breath” aircraft carrier
After decommissioning, the French government entertained the idea of transforming it into a museum. In September, the initiative, which had previously received backing from the Amicale des Anciens du Clemenceau et du Foch (Clemenceau And Foch Alumni Friendship), was finally scrapped.
According to the NGO Robin des Bois, when sold to Brazil, the aircraft carrier was already “out of breath” and said France had a share of the responsibility for the sinking. Instead of dismantling the aircraft carrier Foch, it sold it to the Brazilian Navy, said the association. Decrepit, the building would have required costly modernisation works. The Foch had therefore become a poisoned package. A series of technical problems linked to a fire in 2005 convinced Brasilia to eliminate it.
A drawn-out journeying
In the early spring of 2021, Brazil resold it to a shipyard in Turkey for a low price. However, locating a port to receive the ship and begin its disassembly took time. The ship’s new owner threatened to leave the vessel at sea. In June 2022, he was granted permission to transport it to Turkey for dismantlement.
The aircraft carrier re-embarked, crossed the Atlantic Ocean, and arrived near the Strait of Gibraltar, between Spain and Morocco. Turkey reversed course, declaring that the aircraft carrier was no longer welcome. Ankara was concerned that it contained far more asbestos than anticipated. Now Sao Paulo no longer had access to Brazilian ports. According to a report examined by the Estado de So Paulo, the cruise deteriorated the hull’s condition. The document suggests that the damage was likely caused by the interplay of waves, salt, and wind over the 72 days of high seas navigation in the Atlantic.
Then the owner began looking in vain for a new port of refuge. The ship was still circling close to the coast of Brazil on January 20 when authorities decided to relocate it 300 kilometres from the shore with the intention of sinking it. According to the nonprofit Basel Action Network, which opposes the export of toxic waste, the Brazilian Navy should be condemned for incompetence. If the ship was sunk in the Atlantic, Brazil would violate three international environmental treaties for no good reason, alleged Jim Puckett, the organisation’s director. However, Brazil’s choice had been made. No one wanted it anymore, so the aircraft carrier was sunk to the ocean floor.