French 'Toxic' Ship Bound for India Turned Back
PARIS, Feb. 15 — President Jacques Chirac today ordered the return
of the decommissioned aircraft carrier Clemenceau to French waters
after France's highest court suspended the carrier's transfer to an
Indian scrapheap over concerns that the ship contains unsafe amounts
The announcement, which marked a victory for environmental groups,
came on the eve of a high-profile state visit by Mr. Chirac to New
Delhi, where a series of business contracts and agreements in the
area of energy security and defense are at stake.
The fate of the Clemenceau, once the pride of the French fleet, is
the latest in a string of embarrassments for Mr. Chirac, who has sought
to present himself as a champion of developing countries and environmental
Accused by opposition politicians and the press of unloading France's
toxic waste on the developing world, Mr. Chirac appeared to retreat
today from previous statements that all necessary precautions had
been taken. His office issued a statement saying that the president
had decided that the ship should be returned to a place in France
"offering all security guarantees until a definitive solution for
its dismantling has been found."
The "Clem," as it is known in France, has been marooned in the Indian
Ocean for several weeks pending a decision by the Indian Supreme Court
on whether to allow it to proceed to a scrapheap in the western state
The aircraft carrier's impending return is the latest detour in a
two-year odyssey that has seen the 26,000-ton vessel crisscross international
waters in fruitless efforts to have it decontaminated and broken up.
The ship, which was decommissioned in 1997 after 40 years of French
naval service, set off for Spain in 2003 before being redirected to
Turkey. When a transfer to Greece fell through, the French authorities
eventually repossessed the ship off the coast of Sicily and took it
back to the port of Toulon, where decontamination work began in 2004.
Following drawn-out legal squabbling with environmental groups, the
Clemenceau began its latest voyage, traveling 4,730 nautical miles
to India behind a tugboat and with a French naval escort. In mid-January,
Egyptian authorities held the ship for over a week at the entrance
of the Suez Canal.
At the heart of legal battles surrounding the vessel's dismantling
has been the question of how much asbestos the ship still contains.
A fire-retardant building material, asbestos has been shown to be
carcinogenic. Estimates of how much remains on the ship differ widely.
The French Defense Ministry has said that all visible asbestos waste
was removed from the Clemenceau before it left Toulon in late December,
but that 45 tons of the material remained in the ship's hull.
But environmental organizations like Greenpeace and a number of anti-asbestos
groups have asserted that there is at least 10 times more asbestos
still on the ship. Citing calculations by Technopure, the company
that undertook the first stage of the decontamination process, such
groups say between 500 and 1,000 tons remain.
Responding to complaints by Greenpeace and three anti-asbestos groups,
France's State Council, the country's highest administrative court,
issued a fast-track ruling today demanding that the transfer be suspended
and referring the case to a Paris administrative court for a detailed
legal ruling, which could take up to six months. Greenpeace hailed
the decision, saying it was "satisfied" with the court's ruling, which
it said had come despite "obstacles to truth and transparency."
Mr. Chirac called for another investigation of how much asbestos remains
on the vessel. He also called for an initiative across Europe to set
international standards for the disposal of decommissioned ships abroad.
Such disposal should include "respect for labor laws, workers' health,
and the environment," the president's statement said.
Meanwhile, the government will examine ways of reforming its policy
on exporting toxic waste.
According to a statement from his office, Prime Minister Dominique
de Villepin also plans to create a ministerial committee to study
how to co-manage maritime wreckage with partner countries.
"This is a victory for international law, a victory for Indian workers,
and a victory for workers all across Asia," the director of Greenpeace
France, Pascal Husting, told The Associated Press.
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