(DefesaNET) There seems to be no end to the last voyage of what was once the largest ship in the Brazilian Navy. Forbidden to dock anywhere, the scrap of the aircraft carrier NAe São Paulo (A-12) has not stopped sailing at any time since it left Rio de Janeiro on August 4 last year, bound for Turkey for dismantling and recycling. The decommissioned ship crossed the ocean in tow, had its berthing rejected by the Turks and, on the way back, also by Brazilian ports.
There are not many piers that are able to receive the 266-meter-long giant, but the main reason for the refusal is another: the threat of sinking under the suspicion of carrying a dangerous amount of toxic materials, such as the carcinogenic asbestos. Now the retired warship lies in exile on the high seas. Its hull has a malfunction that could cause incalculable environmental damage if it sinks, either intentionally or accidentally.
After three months of unsuccessful attempts to enter the Port of Suape, in Pernambuco, the ex-aircraft carrier was moved to a deeper region and forbidden by the Navy, on the last 20th, to come close to inland waters or port terminals in Brazil.
The determination is based on the “high risk it represents, with the possibility of grounding, sinking or blocking the access channel to a national port, with logistical, operational and economic losses to the Brazilian State,” according to a statement by the Brazilian Maritime Authority (AMB). Previously, restrictions were imposed only by ports, which denied berthing.
The vessel’s hull returned from Turkey in October with a series of damages, corrosions and other non-conformities. The Navy corroborated that it found “severe degradation of buoyancy and stability conditions” when it conducted an expert inspection of the hull.
The damage was observed for the first time on the way back to Brazil, in the vicinity of Suape, and is included in the report produced in October by the engineering company AWS Service, contracted by the carrier and current owner of NAe São Paulo, the foreign company MSK Maritime Services & Trading.
The document says that the damages are probably related to the interaction with waves, salt, and wind during the 72 days of open sea navigation between Brazil and Turkey. Although the report recommended that the hull be repaired, it stated that until then there was no imminent impairment of buoyancy.
But it is possible that the conditions have deteriorated further during the time the ship has been off the coast of Pernambuco, recognizes attorney Zilan Costa e Silva, a specialist in Maritime Law and representative of MSK in Brazil. “There were more than one hundred days with the hull sailing non-stop,” he told Estadão.
After all, does the ship have toxic material or not?
Toxic, asbestos is, yes, one of the components present in the equipment, which is old. The Aerodrome Ship São Paulo began to be manufactured in 1957 in France and served the French fleet until the 2000s, when it was purchased by Brazil. It was decommissioned by the Brazilian Navy in 2020 and sold in 2021 to the Turkish shipyard Sök Denizcilik Tic Sti.
At the time the aircraft carrier was assembled, asbestos was not yet recognized as a carcinogenic substance by health organizations, and its use in construction was widespread, including in the naval industry. The material was only banned in Brazil in 2017, by decision of the Federal Supreme Court (STF).
AMB reinforced, however, that the vessel underwent a procedure to remove 55 tons of asbestos from the propulsion compartments, catapult, auxiliary machines and diesel generators in the 1990s.
Officially, the scrap of NAe São Paulo now has 9.6 tons of asbestos, in addition to 644.7 tons of heavy metals in paint, 3.4 tons of substances that destroy the ozone layer, and 10 thousand fluorescent lamps with mercury. This is what the Inventory of Hazardous Materials (IHM) says, a document ordered by Sök and elaborated by the Norwegian company Grieg Green, to which Estadão had access.
What is the risk level?
The presentation of the IHM audited by tests of an accredited laboratory and approved by an independent classification society based on the resolutions of the International Maritime Organization (IMO), was a requirement of the bidding notice for the ship.
The ship left for Turkey, said the Brazilian Navy, after the consent of the two countries involved and “in perfect compliance with the requests of Ibama and the corresponding Turkish environmental agency.
In other words, both governments would have agreed to the export and import of the asset knowing the presence of these quantities of potentially dangerous materials.
Such components “do not offer direct risks to the environment, unless the vessel sinks”, assured the Brazilian Institute of Environment and Renewable Natural Resources (Ibama), which is the Brazilian authority responsible for enforcing the Basel Convention, an international regulation on waste transportation.
Ibama stated that the asbestos present in the thermal insulation plates on the ship’s hull is not exposed and is not manipulated. The contamination would only happen in an eventual sinking, as the structure wears down and the substances come into contact with marine life.
“In the same way, the paints used on the structure do not pose a risk as long as the former ship remains on the surface. These substances will receive proper treatment if the ship is sent to a member country of the Basel Convention,” he said.
This is because, as they are inseparable parts of the structure, the materials could only be removed in the process of dismantling and recycling. Currently, there is no facility in Brazil that performs the procedure.
“Exporting the ex-NAe to a country with an accredited shipyard under the Basel Convention, in order to perform environmentally safe recycling, is the correct measure to meet international standards of waste disposal of this nature,” reiterated Ibama in a statement.
Asked by the report if the damages on the plate offer or can offer environmental danger with the hull still afloat, the institute replied that “it does not have enough information for this analysis.”
Whose responsibility is the ship?
After the denial of the national ports, the Brazilian Navy took over again, on the last 20th, the operations involving the vessel, after, according to a note, the owner did not comply with the order to perform “the necessary steps for the safe maintenance of the hull, in the indicated maritime area, located 24 nautical miles (about 46 km) from the Brazilian coast, outside the Territorial Sea.
As a result, the vessel hired by MSK to do the towage was replaced by the Navy’s ocean support ship Purus. The exchange took place 315 kilometers (or 170 nautical miles) off the coast, “a maritime area considered safe, given the current conditions of severe degradation in which the hull is found,” AMB said.
The aircraft carrier ceased to be owned by the Navy on April 21, 2021, when it was decommissioned and put up for auction to the private sector – but it continues to give the Union headaches.
The company that bought the ship last year for R$10.5 million was the Turkish shipyard Sök Denizcilik Tic Sti, certified by the European Union to carry out ship recycling. In December 2022, however, ownership of the asset passed to the carrier MSK Maritime Services & Trading, which towed the NAe São Paulo from Brazil to Europe, and back to Brazil. “For commercial reasons, this transaction was made,” the lawyer explained.
But now, in the face of the imbroglio, nobody seems to want to take full responsibility for the giant. The Brazilian Navy has emphasized that the buyer is still responsible for the property, while MSK says it renounces ownership of the hull.
The time sailing aimlessly would have caused the company losses initially calculated at R$5 million, but which could reach R$10 million, Costa e Silva estimated. “We kept asking, working, trying to find solutions until the moment it became impossible to continue,” he said.
Is there a solution to the impasse?
An impasse makes it difficult to predict what the solution to the imbroglio will be. The hull will not be allowed to enter Turkey or dock in Brazilian ports as it is, damaged and posing an environmental threat. But the required repairs have to be done with the vessel docked, Ibama and MSK confirmed to the report.
“The repairs must be carried out in a national shipyard that has technical and operational capacity,” the national institute commented. “Ibama does not have the authority to authorize or disallow the docking, but determined by notification that the company must present all the necessary documentation for docking in a Brazilian shipyard. This documentation was also required by the Navy and includes insurance, contract with the shipyard, and repair plan. The company did not present these documents to Ibama,” he pointed out.
MSK, on the other hand, said that it did not do the repair due to lack of location. “The repair could only be done in internal waters and in a quiet place. In the middle of the sea, there was no safety for the team. We were not going to put people at risk,” said the legal representative.
Pulling the structure in tow, the Navy has not answered what it intends to do with it from now on. An oceanic question mark hangs over the fate of the old warship.
A new company entered the game this week. The Saudi company Sela Trading Holding Company informed that it offered the Brazilian Navy, this Monday, 30, R$ 30 million for the ex-ship, almost three times the amount for which it was bid. The idea of the purchase was to take the vessel to a shipyard of the company, located in a European country, said the lawyer representing Alex Christo Bahov to Estadão. According to him, however, the Navy only acknowledged receipt of the proposal and gave no reply until Tuesday evening, 31st.
Ibama, on the other hand, said on Tuesday night, 31, that it is seeking more detailed information about the location planned for a possible sinking of the ex-ship “with a view to eventual mitigation, repair and safeguarding of the Brazilian environment”.
Even so, the agency once again defended that it considers green recycling in a shipyard accredited by the European Union the best environmental destination for ex-ships. “The institute’s technical team estimates that the release of polluting materials contained in the structure could cause disturbance in the filtering capacity and difficulty of growth in aquatic organisms; the physical impact on the ocean bottom would cause the death of species and deterioration of ecosystems; CFCs and HCFCs used in the insulation of rooms would contribute, through corrosion of the walls, to the degradation of the ozone layer; the housing could attract invasive species harmful to native biodiversity; and the microplastics and heavy metals present in the ship’s paints could become protagonists of undesirable bioaccumulation in aquatic organisms. As an aggravating factor, all the expected impacts could occur in biodiversity hotspots, fundamental for marine life,” he listed.
The institute also recommended that questions related to details such as date and location of a possible sinking be directed to the Brazilian Navy. Sought, the Navy did not respond to the report to confirm or deny its intention to sink the vessel.
The Federal Public Ministry (MPF) filed a public civil action with a request for an injunction to prevent the aircraft carrier from being sunk in Brazilian waters. The agency requires the Federal Court to determine that the Navy immediately suspend any service aimed at sinking the vessel, on the high seas or near the coast, without the presentation of studies that prove the absence of environmental risk.
MPF appeals against the court decision that allowed the sinking of the aircraft carrier São Paulo
The hull of the vessel is composed of asbestos, a substance with toxic and carcinogenic potential, with use banned in Brazil since 2017
The Federal Public Ministry (MPF) filed an appeal with the Federal Regional Court of the 5th Region (TRF5), on Thursday (2), against a decision of the first instance of the Federal Court in Pernambuco (JFPE) that denied a request for an injunction in a public civil action filed by the MPF to prevent the hull of the aircraft carrier São Paulo from being sunk in Brazilian waters.
In the appeal, the agency requires the TRF5 that, in addition to reform the decision of the JFPE, the Brazilian Navy be determined to immediately suspend any service aimed at sinking the vessel, at sea or near the coast, without the presentation of studies that prove the absence of environmental risk, under penalty of imposing a daily fine in case of noncompliance.
The MPF argues that the technical note of the Brazilian Institute of Environment and Renewable Natural Resources (Ibama) points to the risk of serious environmental damage in case of eventual sinking, especially taking into account that the hull is damaged, according to inspections conducted by the Navy. The ship’s scrap currently contains 9.6 tons of asbestos, a substance with toxic and carcinogenic potential, as well as 644 tons of paint and other hazardous materials. The use of asbestos has been banned in Brazil since 2017, after a decision by the Supreme Court.
In the appeal, the MPF reinforces that the court decision issued in the first degree does not present technical-scientific evidence that the sinking of other ships built until 2011 (case of the aircraft carrier São Paulo), also with large amounts of asbestos, has not compromised the environment. The MPF also argues that ignorance of the extent of damage to the environment is a circumstance that requires the adoption of the precautionary measure, and not the contrary.
Action – The filing of the lawsuit was motivated by the news that the sinking of the vessel was scheduled for last Wednesday (1) – which has not yet occurred. The MPF’s objective, as stated in the lawsuit, is to avoid that the hasty decision to sink the vessel causes “irreparable damage to the marine environment, to the public health of the population, and irreversible health consequences.
In the lawsuit, the MPF also requires that the Union be ordered, through the Ministry of Defense, to promote technical studies for the proper disposal of the hull, through appropriate disposal, without risk to the environment and public health, or by selling the former ship to a company able to make the necessary repairs to the safe disposal.
The MPF has been following the case since last year, when the vessel was near the Port of Suape, in Pernambuco. At the time, a court injunction, in a lawsuit filed by the State of Pernambuco and Suape, prevented the docking of the former ship in Pernambuco. Since then, the vessel has been sailing aimlessly along the Brazilian coast.
Case No. 0802721-36.2023.4.05.8300 – 2nd Federal Court in PE (Appeal No. 0800949-09.2023.4.05.0000)
*** Translated by the DEFCONPress FYI Team ***