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“Toxic” Aircraft Carrier Reverts to Brazilian Navy but Remains at Sea 

Brazilian aircraft carrier
Former aircraft carrier has been under tow since August 2022 spending more than three months circling off Brazil (Brazilian Navy photo)

Published Jan 23, 2023 2:38 PM by The Maritime Executive

The saga of the derelict former Brazilian aircraft carrier NAe São Paulo continues with the vessel having spent more than three months at sea, and now the possession of the hulk has reverted to the Brazilian Navy. While environmental groups contend the ship is heavily laden with asbestos and other toxic materials, the Brazilian Navy contends the problems are the scrapper’s fault and has ordered the ship further offshore saying it is in danger of sinking.

The Brazilian authorities and the Turkish recycling firm Sok Denizcilik Tic Sti have been arguing over the fate of the hulk since they were forced to bring the aircraft carrier back to Brazil after Turkey’s Environmental Ministry revoked the import license just as the tow of the vessel reached Gibraltar in August 2022. The Brazilian Environmental Agency (IBAMA) ordered the ship towed back to Brazil but when it arrived, ports sought to block the vessel from docking. The Brazilian courts sided with the ports and prevented the Navy from ordering the ship to dock.

The ocean-going tug Alp Centre has found itself caught in the middle unable to release its tow. After months of back and forth between the government and the recycling firm which owned the vessel, the scrapper demanded that Brazil relent and dock the vessel or they said they would surrender the vessel. Alps which was caught in the middle wanted to release its vessel and get its crew home. Since returning to Brazil the vessel had been ordered to sail in circles approximately 24 nautical miles off the coast.

The Brazilian Navy accused Sok of failing to meet requirements before on January 20 confirming that it had reassumed ownership of the aircraft carrier. They contended that the scrapper had failed to make arrangements for the repair of the vessel and was not maintaining the proper P&I insurance coverage. The transfer took place in position 170 nautical miles off the Brazilian Coast and the Navy says it has no intention to dock the vessel or to bring it closer to shore.

Sok acquired the aircraft carrier in April 2021 for recycling but the Navy argues that it was the scrappers’ responsibility to survey the ship and meet all international requirements on the movement of hazardous materials. The Navy contends that France removed 55 tons of asbestos from the propulsion compartments, catapult, auxiliary machinery, and diesel generators in the 1990s. Brazil acquired the ship in 2000 and decommissioned it in 2018 after a series of mishaps.

Brazil argues that the vessel was in “good watertight condition and buoyancy” when it left Rio de Janeiro in August 2022 but that it is now rapidly decaying. Small leaks were identified in the hull and between the first survey in October and a second in December 2022 they report progressive degradation which they said Sok is unable to address. “Given this scenario, in order to guarantee the safety of waterway traffic and the prevention of environmental pollution,” Brazil reports it assumed the operations while Sok reports it surrendered the vessel.

Green groups have been closely following the saga of the NAe São Paulo and responded to the latest developments saying they were “shocked over this move and are not convinced by the Navy's sudden rationale that the ship posed an imminent danger.” The groups are demanding action.

"We call on President Lula as the commander-in-chief of the Brazilian Navy to intervene immediately and give orders to bring the NAe São Paulo back into Rio De Janeiro to be received at the same Navy dock from which it left or find a suitable recycling destination. Intentionally sinking this toxic aircraft carrier would equate to a state-sponsored environmental crime," said Ingvild Jenssen, Executive Director & Founder of NGO Shipbreaking Platform.

The groups report that a Navy representative at the end of December “already alluded to a possible contingency action of sinking the ship.” The NGOs fear that the Navy intends never to return the ship to a port, never re-examine it for its quantity of hazardous wastes onboard, toxicity and suspected radioactivity, and will instead use an excuse of a small leak in the ship’s structure to force its sinking in the Atlantic Ocean.