There was a time, not so long ago, when it was difficult to look at the Foch warship with any other feeling than wonder. Let’s review: the aircraft carrier, of the Clemenceau class, of about 32,000 tons and 266 meters in length, had the capacity to 1,300 crew and 30 fighter-bombers. His story was also that of a veteran of the seas. It had been built in France in 1963 and for almost four decades it served under the command of the French Navy in the war in Lebanon or the Gulf, among other conflicts throughout Europe, Africa and the Middle East.
The Foch, renamed São Paulo, has remained a huge ship to the end. But her golden days are far away. For months she has mostly been a huge problem. More than with admiration or amazement for her display of engineering and her history, authorities, citizens and environmentalists have looked at her as a hot potato that nobody wanted to take away from her plate. The once dignified Foch was a nuisance, a brown, a stinking ship that has drifted for months between rejections. Simply, she could not find any port that wanted it.
The why is very simple. With six decades behind her and long retired from service, the ship was doomed to become scrap, like other old naval glories. In his case, yes, one full of toxic material.
fighting to the end
Lateral view of FS Clemenceau, of the Clemenceau class.
To learn the history of the ship, you have to go back sixty years, to the early 1960s, when it was put under the command of the French Navy under the name of Foch. After an intense naval service record, in 2001 the Brazilian Navy decided to buy it for about 12 million dollars and the today known as São Paulo led to a less splendorous chapter.
In South America, it spent more time in port than sailing the oceans and due to technical problems and the occasional incident in 15 years, it covered a meager service sheet of just 206 days of operations and 85,334 km of sailing.
With that scant balance, in 2021 the ship seemed to write the last chapter of its chronicle. More interested in its metals than in the chronicle or military potential of São Paulo, a Turkish company, Sok Denizcilik, bought it for around 1.8 million dollars to scrap it. His objective was very simple: first eliminate the waste, remove the metals that could be used and sell them later.
It sounded simple, but the operation would end up being a real headache for both the Turkish company and the Brazilian authorities.
Will the decommissioned aircraft carrier SAO PAULO A12 be sunk off the Brazilian coast? The ship’s fate hangs in limbo. The former French Navy FOCH R99 has become an embarrassment to all concerned https://t.co/yiH5T94dDX
— Chris Cavas (@CavasShips) February 1, 2023
The reason is the inheritance of toxic components that the ship carried inside. When it was manufactured in the 1960s, awareness of the environment and health risks was different and — recalls The New York Times — the use of asbestos was common, a fire retardant that today we know is harmful to the human body. How much? The inspectors calculated that on board it would contain less than 10 tons of the controversial mineral, but the data flaked the environmentalists.
The sister aircraft carrier of the São Paulo, the Clemenceau, leader of its class and dismantled years ago during a process that also generated controversy, gave some clues. France claimed that she was carrying 45 tons of asbestos on board, an amount that was not enough for environmental groups.
Something similar happened with the São Paulo, especially after the Norwegian company that had been in charge of inventorying its hazardous materials acknowledged to environmentalists that it had found “sealed and inaccessible” spaces on the aircraft carrier and that it was well could occur “a major gap” between the estimated asbestos and the one it actually contained.
In the midst of the controversy and the campaign of environmentalists, at the beginning of August, the old São Paulo decided to start what should be its last journey with the help of a tugboat. The idea was to arrive in Turkey for scrapping. There are times when the idea to reality goes a long way. And this was one of them. Scaled, the Turkish authorities decided to cancel the import permits and the old aircraft carrier, already close to Gibraltar, was forced to back down. The million dollar question was… Where did she go?
The obvious answer was Brazil, but when it approached its shores in October, the navy prevented it from returning to the port of Rio de Janeiro. He was unable to cast mooring there or at any of the docks where he requested to call. Neither did he find space in those of the Navy. Thus, the unfortunate São Paulo and her tugboat had no choice but to go around. But that was an ideal solution. Not even an exit that could be hold too much in time.
As detailed by TNYT, the tug cost the company 20 tons of fuel per day and damage began to be detected in the hull of the aircraft carrier itself, which made it advisable to take it to port for repair. The ship assembled in its day to resolve conflicts found itself at the epicenter of a monumental one: it was in Brazilian waters, but its cargo made it an undesirable tenant for the ports. As for the Navy, she maintains that the new owners of the ship did not meet the requirements to allow her to dock. Even Justice came to suspend an order that authorized him to dock in Pernambuco.
How to solve such a mess?
The Brazilian Navy recently warned that the ship could hardly be saved and saw it as “inevitable” that it would end up sinking “spontaneously and uncontrolled” due to damage to the hull and problems staying afloat. Her solution: send it to the bottom of the sea, turn it into a wreck in Brazilian waters, some 350 kilometers from the coast and 5,000 meters deep.
The decision was not liked by the Prosecutor’s Office, which requested that the sinking be prevented due to the risks to the environment and public health; much less to environmentalists, who had an impact on the irreparable damage it would cause to the ecosystem. “It would be completely inexplicable and irrational,” stressed Jim Puckett of the Basel action Network. Nor did it convince the Brazilian environmental agency, which warns of its impact on both the ozone layer and marine wildlife.
In any case, its hull would still be of interest to a Saudi company, which would have offered, according to Folha de S. Paulo, six million dollars, which the newspaper maintains, would have altered the plans to cause the sinking of the ship.
It was of little use. Yesterday the Brazilian Navy issued an official statement to report the “planned and controlled sinking” of the ship. “The procedure was carried out with the necessary technical expertise and security in order to avoid logistical, operational, environmental and economic damage,” the note emphasizes.
Ironies of naval history, the São Paulo has given more war already retired and in the last months of his long career than when he served in the Navy.
Images: Phc Jack C. Bahm (Wikipedia) and Wikimedia