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New giant shipwreck – but who needs this one?

The Sao Paulo aircraft-carrier is now a deep shipwreck off Brazil (Rob Schleiffert)
The Sao Paulo aircraft-carrier is now a deep shipwreck off Brazil (Rob Schleiffert)

The Brazilian Navy has sunk an elderly decommissioned aircraft-carrier in the south Atlantic – ignoring warnings about the environmental damage it is considered likely to cause.

The controlled sinking was carried out some 190 nautical miles off the Brazilian coast in an area around 5km deep on 3 February. The 266m Sao Paulo, which started life in France in the late 1950s as the Foch, was scuttled after a succession of ports inside and outside Brazil had declined to accept it.

Also read: ‘We found long-banned pollutants 8,000m deep’

Environmental groups have claimed that the warship is packed with toxic materials including an estimated 760 tonnes of asbestos, more than 300 tonnes of PCB-contaminated material and heavy metals that could leach into the water to pollute the marine eco-system. They have described the wreck not as an artificial reef but as a “30,000-tonne toxic package”.

“We are in shock, because we have been asking the Brazilian Navy to simply return the ship to a naval base for months, to get a proper survey of the hazardous materials on board,” said Jim Puckett of the Basel Action Network (BAN). The US charity is named for the 1989 UN Basel Convention, intended to restrict trade in hazardous waste between more and less developed countries.

“Now it’s become clear that they would rather contaminate the environment and lose millions of dollars to avoid allowing further scrutiny of the true contents of the ship,” said Puckett, referring to the wastage of such a large quantity of recyclable steel. “The sinking was completely unnecessary.”

’Blatant violation’

Last aerial view of the Sao Paolo (Greenpeace)
Last aerial view of the Sao Paolo (Greenpeace)

The Brazilian Navy’s action has violated three international environmental treaties, says BAN – not only the Basel Convention but the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants and the London Convention & Protocol to promote control of all sources of marine pollution.

“What happened last night will go down in history as the single most blatant violation of chemicals and waste treaties ever to take place at the hands of a country,” commented Nicola Mulinaris of the NGO Shipbreaking Platform. “An independent inquiry as to why this took place must be undertaken to ensure that such a thing never happens again.”

As the Foch, the aircraft-carrier participated in France’s first nuclear tests in the Pacific in the 1960s, and was later used in Africa, the Middle East and the former Yugoslavia. Brazil bought the vessel for $12m in 2000, and last year commissioned a Turkish company to scrap it.

This plan foundered at the hands of Turkish environmental authorities in August, just as the Sao Paolo was about to be towed into the Mediterranean. Returned to Brazil, the ship was not allowed into port –because the authorities deemed it a “high risk” to the environment.

Also on Divernet: Petrel Scores Again – With Aircraft-Carrier, Wreck-Hunters Follow Hornet – With The Wasp, Pearl Harbor Attack Carriers Located, WW2 Aircraft Carrier Wreck Found,

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