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French court okays asbestos warship's transfer to India
Updated: 2005-12-31 15:50

A French court paved the way for a decommissioned warship insulated with asbestos to be sent for scrapping in India, after rejecting petitions by campaigners trying to block its transfer.

A judge at the Paris administrative court ruled that the four groups had raised "no serious doubts" about the legality of the aircraft-carrier Clemenceau's transfer for decontamination in a shipyard in India.

French authorities were waiting for the legal green light to tow the ship, currently docked at the French naval base of Toulon, to Alang in northwestern India, home to the world's biggest ship-breaking yard.

"In theory, the Clemenceau can leave," said Joel Alquezar, who represented the French state in court.

Environmentalist group Greenpeace and three anti-asbestos groups have tried for months to block the operation, on the grounds that Indian shipyard workers are not properly protected from the hazards of working with asbestos, which can cause a form of lung cancer.

Body of the French decomissioned warship, the Clemenceau, 29 December 2005.
Body of the French decomissioned warship, the Clemenceau, 29 December 2005. [AFP]
The groups reject the state's assessment of the amount of asbestos still left inside the Clemenceau, which they estimate at around 100 tonnes.

Lawyers for the campaigners insisted the fight was not over, and said they were considering an appeal to the State Council, France's highest court -- although such an appeal would not prevent the ship's departure.

Marine authorities in Toulon said on Thursday the Clemenceau was ready to leave as soon as it was authorised to do so.

"We may not be able to stop it from leaving, but the Clemenceau won't necessarily make it all the way to India," said Michel Parigot, a leader of the Jussieu and Andeva anti-asbestos groups, who said legal action may be taken in India.

The state's counsel Alquezar said the groups were wrongly creating "the impression that India is a lawless state".

Briac Beilvert, chairman of the company charged with removing the asbestos and dismantling the ship, Ship Decommissioning Industries (SDI), a Panama-registered affiliate of German steel giant Thyssen-Krupp, also dismissed the groups' fears.

He said he could "guarantee that workers' health will be taken into account, whatever their nationality."

In the Clemenceau case, the campaigners also argued that the French state's decision to export the mothballed ship violates rules on the handling of dangerous waste.

But Paris says that the aircraft-carrier, although decommissioned, is a warship and so not bound by the Bale convention of 1989 on the international shipment of dangerous waste.

Almost half of the world's ships end up in India for dismantling after their sailing lives are over, according to Greenpeace.

Greenpeace and the International Federation of Human Rights Leagues (FIDH) charged in a report this month that countries which send ships for scrapping in India and other Asian developing countries are condoning a poorly regulated system that has claimed thousands of workers' lives.

Accidents, explosions and contamination from hazardous materials plague workers in many ship-breaking yards, according to the report.

Despite a lack of official statistics, Greenpeace and the FIDH estimate that several thousand people have died in accidents in ship-breaking yards over the past 20 years, without counting deaths due to long-term contamination.

But another environmental group, Robin des Bois (Robin Hood), said the French state had taken an important step in carrying out 90 percent of the asbestos decontamination work itself, which it said was a first in European shipping.

The Clemenceau, which took part in the 1991 Gulf War, was taken out of service in 1997 when it was superseded by France's new, nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, the Charles de Gaulle.

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