May 17, 2006

France’s “toxic ship” back after scrap yard fiasco

By Pierre-Henri Allain

BREST, France (Reuters) - The rusting hulk of a
decommissioned French warship turned away as an environmental
hazard by India three months ago limped home on Wednesday after
a costly fiasco that badly embarrassed President Jacques

Under gray skies, tugboats maneuvered the former aircraft
carrier Clemenceau, once the pride of the French navy but now
an asbestos-laden shell, now renamed "Q790," into the harbor of
Brest, the Breton port where it was built in 1955.

Stripped of its equipment, the 27,000-tonne hulk had been
destined for an Indian scrap yard but local authorities ruled
in February the asbestos on board could pose serious health
risks and blocked it from entering Indian territorial waters.

The decision came as a severe embarrassment to Chirac who
was about to begin a visit to India and exposed the government
to accusations of wastefulness at a time when France was trying
to cut public spending.

Chirac was forced to order the vessel to turn back from the
Indian Ocean where it had been awaiting a final decision on its
fate, bringing the final bill for the operation to an estimated
12 million euros ($15 million).

The troubled voyage, derided as a farce in the French
press, has been seen as a symbol of France's battered image,
coinciding as it did with a festering government smear scandal
and street protests against unpopular economic reforms.

The case highlighted the risks linked with dismantling the
hundreds of naval and commercial ships that are decommissioned
each year across the world.

Most breaker's yards are in Asia where wages are low and
environmental groups have accused western shippers of
exploiting lax enforcement of environmental standards.

Defense Minister Michele Alliot-Marie said last week that
no decision had been taken on where to break up the Clemenceau.

Authorities in Brest have said the work might be done in
France, although any decision would be likely to raise a storm
of protest from environmental groups which say adequate
facilities do not exist.