Toxic Trade News / 1 January 2006
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France's latest national debate: a warship to India
French court throws out suit by environmentalists, battleship with at least 40 tonnes of asbestos leaves for Alang on Gujarat coast
by Sonu Jain, The Sunday Express - Indian Express Newspapers

1 January 2006 (Paris/Toulon) – The aged French aircraft carrier Clemenceau today set sail for the ship-breaking yard at Alang on the coast of Gujarat. With its 27,000 tonnes of steel to be sold as scrap, it will also bring with it at least 40-50 tonnes of hazardous asbestos used as insulation in the ship. The last legal suit from a collective of four activists’ groups was thrown out by the French administrative courts yesterday, paving the way for its departure from the Toulon military harbour.

  Battleship Clemenceau  

The French government successfully convinced the courts that the ship was not ‘‘hazardous waste’’ till it was floating on the seas, hence not violating the Basel convention which bans trade in hazardous materials like asbestos. Activists such as Greenpeace and Ban Asbestos claim that these are semantics in order to import their trash to countries like India where standards on hazardous substances are still lax.

While the French might have been able to successfully convince their judiciary, so far the ship’s departure is contravening the last order of the Supreme Court committee on hazardous waste. In February this year, on hearing the Clemenceau application, it ruled that it should only come after 98 per cent of asbestos has been removed.

The French government admits that there is more than that on the ship. However, they are not willing to disclose the exact amount: ‘‘We can only make estimates as to how much there is on board. We have done all that we can to remove what was visible and friable,’’ said Vice Admiral Francois Forissier. The official estimate now is 40-50 tonnes on board after 115 tonnes has been removed in Toulon itself.

For the removal of the rest, the ship will have to be dismantled. In Europe, this dismantling would cost as much as 20 million pounds. By sending it to India, they would be getting money for the scrap.

The French state has come in for a lot of flak for packing it off to Alang from the media who disbelieve the state’s claims that they have removed most of the asbestos before it sets sail.

For India, the debate should assume more significance as unlike thousands of commercial ships that end up in Alang to die, Clemenceau is a property of the state of France ‘‘committed to environmental safety’’.

At the heart of the controversy lies the central question: Should India set standards for dealing with waste like asbestos? A known carcinogenic, it was used with abandon in the ’50s and ’60s as an insulator in construction material and is now being phased out.

Built in the 50s, Clemenceau is supposed to contain more than normal levels of asbestos becoming a hot potato for Europe today. After being decommissioned in 1997, it has been sent to Turkey from where it had to be recalled. Talk with Greece failed and plans to convert it into an artificial reef was turned down. Failing all this, a special unit was created in the French Navy to dispose it of. India, being one of the four surviving ship breaking yards, became their first choice.

According to the French government, they have tried innovative ways to ‘‘find a way forward’’. ‘‘So far, none existed. We are at least trying to break this ship in a transparent, environmentally sustainable way,’’ said Guy Dabas from the French Navy in charge of the project.

A contract for removal of asbestos was given to a private company called Ships Decommissioning Industries Corporation (SDIC). SDIC went into partnership with Indian Shree Ram Vessels Scrap limited for the dismantling operations and Gujarat-based Luthra group for removal of asbestos. To ensure safety, they trained engineers from Luthra Group in France in their own facility.

However, they are tight-lipped on the exact amount of asbestos on board and estimate fluctuate between 40 and 100 tonnes.‘‘We cannot disclose the inventory as this concerns a confidentiality clause with the government,’’ said Briac Beilvert, director of SDI.

This debate is important for India as Clemenceau could set a precedent for hundreds of dying war ships floating on world’s oceans. The French company SDI claims that it is actually losing money in this deal but only want to prove that there is a cleaner way to dispose them of.

For Indian ship-breakers, this is an unchartered territory: So far they employ thousands of labourers from Orissa to work in extremely hazardous conditions hauling cables from ships manually, using blowtorches to cut through pipes with oil and gas.

According to sources, SDI is forcing Sree Ram Vessels to buy air pumps and gas masks from them to set new environmental standards. However, Shree Ram Vessels believes they have been dealing with asbestos for years without this expensive equipment. ‘‘We have dealt with at least 300 ships. Every ship has asbestos and this hue and cry is not justified,’’ said Tribhuvan Agarwal, director of Shree Ram Vessels, one of the largest operators in Alang.

Their urgency to see the ship in Alang is justified considering the falling prices of steel. In a deposition, they submitted that the worth of the scrap would be Rs 40 crore.

While the French maintain that they are setting new, tighter standards, it is India that has to set its house on order. S Thyagarajan, who heads the Supreme court monitoring committee on hazardous waste, says that they will discuss a strategy on January 6. ‘‘We will try and ensure that the asbestos is bundled and returned to France. It is not a desirable substance to have in our landfills,’’ he told The Indian Express.

This reporter was in Paris & Toulon on the invitation of the French govt.

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