Brazil's largest aircraft carrier is prevented from leaving the country by the courts, but GPS shows imminent departure from national territoryBrazil's largest aircraft carrier is prevented from leaving the country by the courts, but GPS shows imminent departure from national territory

This Friday, members of the São Paulo/Foch Institute, defenders of the preservation of Brazilian maritime heritage, are racing against time to prevent the aircraft carrier São Paulo, the largest the country ever had, from leaving Brazilian waters for Europe. On Thursday morning (4), the ship began to be transported to Turkey, bound for the shipyard that acquired it last year for R$10.5 million. This auction promoted by the Navy, however, was contested in court and, late Thursday afternoon, the court granted an injunction ordering the ship to return to Guanabara Bay, where it was anchored. But, according to available GPS monitoring, the order has not yet been complied with, and the aircraft carrier is close to the Região dos Lagos, near the Brazilian border, which would make it very difficult to reverse the situation.

The ship is heading north, and it is estimated that it will leave the country within three days, but it is possible that its route will be altered. Named the São Paulo Airship, the Clemenceau-class aircraft carrier was built in France between 1957 and 1960, and is notable for its dimensions: it is 266 meters long and weighs 32.8 thousand tons. In its home country, it carried 1920 French crew members on combat fronts in Africa, the Middle East, and Europe. In 2000, the aircraft carrier was purchased by the Brazilian government at a cost of $12 million and served the Navy until 2014.

Over time, considering the high cost of maintenance and the technological evolution in the sector, which today favors smaller aircraft carriers, for drone operations, the Navy decided to decommission the vessel in 2017. At that time, the former soldier of the Brazilian Air Force, Emerson Miura, an enthusiast on the subject, contacted the Navy and proposed a project to transform the ship into a thematic museum, along the lines of the “Intrepid” in New York.

Initially, Miura says, the idea was well accepted and he made visits to the ship to begin the design of the project, but as of 2018, when there was a change of command in the Navy, plans changed, and the decision was for the sale of the aircraft carrier, so that it could be dismantled. In 2019, there was the first auction, without success. And in 2021 it was sold to Sok Denizcilik, a Turkish company.

In Brazil there is not something like this, like this maritime museum project. Our proposal was, besides the museum, to offer free courses and to bring students closer to maritime technology — explains Miúra, who, to make his idea come true, founded the São Paulo/Foch Institute, and wanted to bring the maritime museum to Santos – This is the oldest aircraft carrier that still exists in the continent today. Now there are only smaller aircraft carriers, to carry helicopters and drones. We are the country of Santos Dumont, we should preserve this heritage.

After the purchase, the Turkish company had 120 days to remove the aircraft carrier from Brazil, a period that ended in September last year and that has not been fulfilled. In addition, the Institute alleged a series of procedural irregularities in the execution of the auction, such as denial of appeal and inversion of phases, and also accused that there had not been proper environmental inspections, necessary because the ship has tons of asbestos inside, a toxic and dangerous substance, whose storage status is currently unknown.

We don’t know how the asbestos is today. The last time I visited the ship, in 2018, the material was still encapsulated, but today we do not know its condition. Asbestos is a substance that penetrates the skin and can cause cancer, its transport should be done with great care – says Miura, who explains that asbestos was widely used in ships in the 60s, as thermal insulation.

Emerson Miura himself was prevented from participating in the auction, under the justification that only buyers interested in recycling the aircraft carrier would be accepted, and Miura’s purpose would be to reuse it as a museum. In the contract with the French, the Navy accepted the condition of consulting the French Navy before disposing of the ship, since it is military equipment, and authorization was given for its dismantling. According to Miura, the Navy usually replies that the museum project was not authorized by France, but he points out that this consultation never took place.

Initially, the Institute did not get the injunction to cancel the auction, but with the news that the aircraft carrier began to be transported on Thursday, federal judge Wilney Magno de Azevedo granted the injunction so that the ship “is prevented from leaving the place where it is, until the Federal Public Ministry manifestation in the process and until there is judicial authorization to the contrary. As the order was not complied with, on Friday afternoon an injunction was issued with the same purpose.

Another accusation is that the transport would not have respected the procedure, such as 72 hours notice. The aircraft carrier was docked at Ilha das Cobras, in Guanabara Bay. The Navy was not contacted. Sok, which could not even be summoned in the process, could not be located. The MPF said it had not been notified of the decision.

Partnership in litigation and irregularities in the transportation of asbestos

In order to participate in the auction, Sok, in compliance with the Brazilian legislation, since it does not have any activities in the country, needed to have the partnership of some national maritime agency. A contract was then made with Cormack, which was the one that, in fact, bought the aircraft carrier São Paulo, in 2021. Subsequently, Cormack made a transfer of ownership to the Turkish company.

But the partnership did not end well. Last year, Sok unilaterally broke the contract between the parties. The disagreements began because of the way the Turkish company dealt with the asbestos present in the vessel. Since it was decommissioned, the aircraft carrier is officially considered a “ship hull” and, for exportation, it is necessary, among other factors, that the asbestos – a substance banned in Brazil – be disposed of.

According to Alex Christo Bahoz, lawyer at Cormack Agência Marítima, several procedures have been disregarded. IBAMA¹, which should have carried out the on-site inspection, only issued a report based on information provided by Sok, among them, the amount of asbestos in the hull, and released the exportation.

The ship has an excessive amount of asbestos on board. It could not leave the country like that. This is contrary to the Basel Convention (a 1989 convention that dealt with control mechanisms for disk waste imports, of which Brazil was a signatory) – says Bahoz.

This case has even generated protests from Turkish NGOs that question the purchase of a vessel full of asbestos, as informed by Ancelmo Góis. Bahoz also says that about 50 employees had to work on the aircraft carrier to prepare the transport to Turkey. Therefore, under hazardous conditions.

Asbestos is highly carcinogenic and the particles were suspended in the air on the ship. One compartment alone held 17 tons. Comarck disagreed mainly about this, because Sok did not dispose of the asbestos. When questioned, Ibama said that the substance would be removed when it arrived in Turkey, which is against the law.

Finally, Bahoz also said that the aircraft carrier’s radiation certification, another requirement, was issued by Turkey, again without an on-site inspection.

– This ship is from the 1960s and has undergone nuclear testing. The plates can absorb radiation. Even the ship Clemenceau, the São Paulo’s brother, had radiation when it was dismantled in Scotland.

Sought, IBAMA¹ has not yet manifested itself.

¹The Brazilian Institute for the Environment and Renewable Natural Resources, better known by the acronym IBAMA – is the executive agency responsible for implementing the National Environmental Policy (PNMA).

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