Greens hail France's toxic warship turnaround

President Jacques Chirac ordered a decommissioned aircraft carrier laden with toxic materials to return to France after the country’s top administrative court suspended its transfer to India for disposal.

Chirac’s decision yesterday was a victory for environmentalists who had condemned plans to send the asbestos-carrying Clemenceau to India to be broken up. The turnaround order also came the day before Chirac travels to Thailand and India to build economic ties.

The fate of the Clemenceau, once a symbol of French naval prowess, has embarrassed French officials and underlined the trouble many countries face in getting rid of retired vessels.

France had argued that it had few disposal options for the hulking 26,700-tonne vessel, with Defence Minister Michele Alliot-Marie saying there were no suitable scrap yards in Europe.

Chirac said he hoped, in the wake of the Clemenceau drama, that the European Union would consider strengthening Europe’s capacity to dispose of pollution, and urged accelerated international efforts to devise “rigorous” new global norms on workers’ health and respect for the environment over ship disposals.

He also ordered further tests to determine exactly how much asbestos was on board the Clemenceau once it returned. French television has aired images of the vessel, covered with rust and cracking paint.

The government will now examine ways of reforming France’s policy on exporting waste materials.

It will also create a panel of ministers to study how to manage maritime wreckage with partner countries, Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin’s office said in a statement.

“This is a victory for international law, a victory for Indian workers, and a victory for workers all across Asia,” Greenpeace France director Pascal Husting said.

“I congratulate the president on this decision.”

Chirac decided the ship should return to French waters ”until a definitive solution is found for dismantling”, a statement from his office said.

Minutes earlier, the Council of State – France’s highest court on administrative matters – ordered a suspension of the ship’s transfer and instructed a lower court to review the case.

The ship’s journey, which began from the French port of Toulon on December 31, has been beset by numerous troubles, including a delay of more than a week after Egypt ordered the vessel inspected before it could cross the Suez Canal. The defence minister said yesterday that the ship would not return home through the Suez Canal, but would take a much longer path around the Cape of Good Hope.

At the crux of France’s dilemma were varying estimates about how much asbestos was on board.

Despite a thorough scrubbing by a contractor before the trip to India, the Clemenceau was still carrying at least 45 tons of asbestos – and possibly much more.

The Council of State ruled that any substance for disposal whose use is banned under French law constitutes ”dangerous waste”. Asbestos, outlawed for use in France since 1996, meets that definition.

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