updated 2/16/2006 1:18:10 PM ET 2006-02-16T18:18:10

When it first took to the seas nearly 50 years ago, the Clemenceau was the crown jewel of French naval prowess. Today, the decommissioned aircraft carrier is an albatross for France amid an uproar over the toxic waste the hulking ship carries.

Even President Jacques Chirac has intervened, on Wednesday ordering it to return to French territorial waters pending a final decision on how to dispose of the asbestos-laden vessel.

The saga underlines the trouble many countries face in getting rid of retired vessels. It has also become an embarrassment for the French Defense Ministry, which environmentalists criticize for not addressing the potential risks of sending the ship to India for dismantling.

The Clemenceau — now known as the Q 790 — first set sail in 1957. Taken out of service in 1997, it is now in the Arabian Sea, having left the French Mediterranean port of Toulon on Dec. 31. Egypt kept the ship from crossing the Suez Canal for more than a week last month before officials there ruled it would not harm the environment.

It was headed to a shipbreaking yard in western India until French and Indian courts weighed in, seeking to determine how much asbestos is on board and the risks to workers taking it apart.

Protests in France and India added to the pressure on Chirac.

French officials have said there are 45 tons of asbestos on the ship, but environmentalists put that number at up to 1,000 tons.

Environmentalists insist the Clemenceau should have been fully cleaned up before leaving port and say France’s transfer of the vessel violates the Basel Convention, an international accord on trade in potentially hazardous waste.

Chirac called the ship home after the country’s top administrative court suspended the transfer, and he ordered further tests once it returns to France to determine exactly how much asbestos is aboard.

Minutes before Chirac’s order, the Council of State — France’s highest court on administrative matters — ordered a suspension of the ship’s transfer, saying it was hauling “dangerous waste” that could not be shipped overseas under French law.

Chirac’s decision, coming the day before he leaves on a five-day trip to Thailand and India, was praised by environmentalists, who had assailed the decision to dispatch the ship to a developing country.

“This is a victory for international law, a victory for Indian workers, and a victory for workers all across Asia,” Greenpeace France director Pascal Husting told The Associated Press. “I congratulate the president on this decision.”

‘No solution’ questioned
On Tuesday, French Defense Minister Michele Alliot-Marie said France had few options other than sending the ship to India.

“There’s no solution for dismantling thousands of warships now rusting in certain places in the world, which is extremely harmful to the environment,” she said Tuesday on Europe-1 radio. “There are no dismantling yards in Europe; none in the United States.”

Capt. Lawrence Jones, who runs the U.S. Navy’s Inactive Ships Program, corrected her in an Associated Press phone interview, saying his program uses three scrapping yards in the United States.

Environmentalists bristled at her comments.

“If Michele Alliot-Marie believes there are no dismantling sites (in France), then she should build some,” Husting said.

Chirac said he hoped the European Union would consider strengthening Europe’s capacity to dispose of pollution, and he urged accelerated international efforts to devise “rigorous” new global norms on workers’ health and respect for the environment over ship disposals.

Merchant marine ships far outnumber naval vessels awaiting attention in junk heaps, and the need is only going to grow: The French Defense Ministry says about 700 vessels worldwide are taken apart each year, and that figure is likely to double in two to three years.

Other options
Governments do have options with retired boats. France has parked some outside ports in the western city of Brest or southern Toulon as wave-breakers; some are sold secondhand.

The United States made a splash in 2005 by using the USS America for explosion tests before it sank. The U.S. Navy also donates some ships, and has begun a program to foster reef growth, Jones said. The Navy has 54 ships lined up for disposal, he said.

Sending ships for a date with the wrecking ball is rarely popular, and courts often intervene. Some of the vessels carry asbestos, freon, mercury, cancer-causing polychlorinated biphenyls — PCBs — or other toxins.

When the Clemenceau was built, asbestos wasn’t widely known to be a health hazard.

“Many ships that have been built before a certain date have this asbestos problem,” said Jurrien Noot, a naval construction analyst at Jane’s Information Group. “You might say this was a time bomb waiting to go off.”

The Clemenceau, which is far smaller than most U.S. aircraft carriers, was a core ship in French naval operations for nearly 40 years. It traveled the equivalent of 50 times around the world, and more than 20,000 naval crew members served on its decks.

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