Here is the background story on the sinking of a vessel that once was the flagship of the French and Brazilian navies...
The Brazilian Navy announced the sinking of the ex-aircraft carrier off the coast of Brazil in the Atlantic Ocean on February 3, 2023. They emphasized that the Brazilian Navy handled the unexpected sinking event with the necessary technical and safety skills in order to avoid logistical, operational, environmental, and economic losses to the Brazilian State.
“The location for the hull’s final disposal, Guas Jurisdicionais Brasileiras (AJB), 350 kilometers from the coast and with a depth of approximately 5,000 meters, was chosen based on research conducted by the Navy Hydrography Center and the Institute of Studies of the Sea Almirante Paulo Moreira. The analyses looked at aspects of navigation safety and the environment, with a focus on mitigating impacts on public health, fishing activities, and ecosystems.”
Ex-Foch/Sao Paulo Saga in a nutshell
The carrier, originally known as Foch when it entered service with the French Navy in 1963, was the second vessel of the Clemenceau-class. The ship was decommissioned in 2000, when the French Navy commissioned the Charles de Gaulle carrier. It was then transferred to Brazil and renamed Sao Paulo, with the bilateral agreement naming Brazil as the ship’s “final user.” Sao Paulo joined the Brazilian fleet in November 2000.
After several years of service, Sao Paulo experienced unfortunate incidents and defects in critical systems. On May 17, 2005, an explosion occurred in the engine room’s steam network. The propulsion system suffered extensive damage. The repair took a long time, and she was supposed to be back in service in 2013, but she was destroyed by another major fire in 2012. As of September 2016, she was still undergoing repairs; the Brazilian Navy’s commander, Admiral Eduardo Leal Ferreira, stated that plans were in place to replace the carrier’s propulsion system. The ship’s catapult was also said to be malfunctioning. Before decommissioning, she had to return to the Shipyard every three months for repairs and maintenance. Brazil Navy was unable to operate Sao Paulo as efficiently as expected.
As the flagship, ex-NAe Sao Paulo was an iconic ship among Brazilians.
The ship’s fate was unclear after it was decommissioned in 2018. The Brazilian government decided to sell the ship for dismantling, whereas the Sao Paulo / Foch Institute in Brazil wanted to preserve it and turn it into a museum. The scrap of Sao Paulo was sold to the Turkish company “SOK Denizcilik” for dismantling in March 2021. In an auction, SK Company paid 10.550.000,00 R $ (equivalent to $1.9 million) for the ex-carrier. The dismantling was supposed to take place at Turkey’s Aliaga Ship Recycling Facilities in Izmir, but it couldn’t.
The dismantling process was impeded by two significant incidents. The possibility of scrapping the ship in Izmir sparked outrage among Turkish environmental activists due to the poisonous material (asbestos) it carries, as the Turkish Environment Ministry canceled the ship’s clearance. Though the ex-NAe Sao Paulo left Brazil for dismantling, it was forced to return to Brazil. Another reason is the Foch/Sao Paulo Institute’s activism. This non-governmental organization worked hard to keep the iconic ship in Brazil and turn it into a naval museum in order to educate Brazilians about naval issues. They went to court and attempted to have the Turkish Company’s tender canceled.
After the carrier returned, it awaited its uncertain fate until the Brazilian Ministry of Defense made a decision that disappointed many Brazilians.
Speaking to Naval News, Emerson Miura, the President of Foch/Sao Paulo Institute, said that they did everything possible to save the ship, but the Brazilian Navy’s decision was a bit hurried and unexpected for them. “What happens is that the navy will have to justify itself. The shape that was sunk in a bit of a hurry.” Miura stated.
Emerson Miura responded to Naval News’ question about the reason for the Brazilian Navy’s action “According to the Navy, the ship has hull damage and could sink at any time. We sent an email to the Brazilian Navy and the Ministry of Environment prior to the sinking. They did not respond. We provided a solid solution via an Arabic company.“
“As soon as the ship was returned to the Navy, we presented a salvage plan. But unfortunately, they did not respond to our messages.”
Emerson Miura, President of Foch/Sao Paulo Institute
Miura believes that the sinking of the ex-aircraft carrier will have international repercussions and environmental concerns, and pointed out that they did everything to save the ship for years, but the result hurt many people in the country.
Jorge de Souza, a journalist at the Brazilian media platform uol.com.br, spoke to Naval News and underlined the environmental concerns and their possible impact on human health in the long term.
“What causes perplexity is that, in the case of the former Brazilian aircraft carrier, this was done even knowing what was in it: an unknown amount of toxic material, including tons of asbestos, carcinogenic material banned worldwide, and, most likely also PCBs, a chemical compound that is even worse because it does not dissolve in water and is transmitted to people through food intake, such as fish.” Mr de Souza stated.
Jorge de Souza underlined that dismantling of this ship in a professional facility would be much better than sending lots of toxic materials uncontrolled in the water.
“If not even Turkey, the country where the former aircraft carrier would be properly dismantled at an accredited shipyard, agreed to do so for fear of the unknown amount of toxic material on board, as the Brazilian Navy had the audacity to simply sink the old ship in the sea? The answer is not so straightforward.”
Jorge de Souza, Brazilian journalist
He also stated that the ex-carrier had to wait in Brazil after the purchase agreement was broken, and the ship was sunk just a few hours later after the Justice denied an injunction requested by the Public Prosecutor’s Office, granting the Navy the right to do whatever it wanted with the ship. “Although the sinking is a regrettable and tragic solution, as the magistrate who heard the case wrote, with some logic, in the dispatch that sealed the former aircraft carrier’s fate as irreversible,” he said.
The NGO Shipbreaking Platform, a coalition of environmental, human and labour rights organisations in Belgium, stated that when the SÃO PAULO returned, rather than being directed back to the Rio de Janeiro base from where it had departed, the Brazilian Navy refused to allow it to dock there or at any other Naval base.
“On January 13, a survey was suddenly conducted showing water leaking into the vessel. The ship was given about 4 more weeks by the salvage master before it might no longer be safe to move it. Once again, the Navy refused to bring it to the dock for repair. Instead, on January 20, the Navy suddenly forced the convoy 200 miles further off-shore, announcing soon after the intention to sink the vessel. “
NGO Shipbreaking Platform
Even when used as targets in naval exercises, the sinkings of ships are heartbreaking events. However, sinking an iconic ship in this manner harmed many sailors and naval enthusiasts all over the world. Of course, the Brazilian Navy has its own reasons and likely held numerous discussions about the fate of NAe Sao Paulo in order to keep it out of the country’s soil and territorial waters; however, sending a large amount of hazardous material into the ocean by exploding it does pose some risks in the long run.
The struggle of the Sao Paulo/Foch Institute is admirable, but due to the procurement agreement between France and Brazil, which states that the Brazilian Navy is the ship’s final user, the Institute was unable to enter tenders and was not permitted to purchase the ex-carrier from the SOK company, which was chosen to dismantle the ship. Sao Paulo could have been a good museum for people, naval enthusiasts, and naval historians if the bureaucracy had allowed it, but she is now sleeping at the bottom of the ocean with a lot of uncontrolled hazardous materials.