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French 'Toxic' Ship Bound for India Turned Back
 
By Katrin Bennhold
International Herald Tribune
February 15, 2006

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 of asbestos.

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 causes.

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 of Gujarat.

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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