French ship faces green protest in Britain

27th January 2009, Comments 0 comments

Green group the Friends of Hartlepool is hoping to sink plans for the imminent arrival of an asbestos-tainted French aircraft carrier.

HARTLEPOOL, January 27, 2009 (AFP) - Local green campaigners in Britain are protesting the imminent arrival of an asbestos-tainted French aircraft carrier here, where it is to be dismantled after being rejected by India.

But others argue the task of taking apart the Clemenceau will provide much-needed work, at a time when jobs are being cut across the country due to the global slowdown.

The ageing carrier, a former flagship of the French navy now known simply as hull Q790, could be towed within the next week to Hartlepool, northeastern England, where British shipbreakers Able UK plan to finally dismantle it.

The vessel is waiting for calmer weather to make its final journey from Brest, northwestern France, where it has been since an embarrassing 18,000-kilometre (11,200-mile) journey to western India in 2006.

The saga may not be over. Green group the Friends of Hartlepool is still hoping to mount an eleventh-hour effort to sink the plans.

The group has failed to secure a legal ruling preventing the Clemenceau's transfer to Hartlepool, but its lawyers are examining whether an appeal can be filed under laws regulating the export of toxic waste.

Their opposition stems from the fact that the vessel contains around 700 tonnes of materials contaminated by asbestos, a highly carcinogenic substance.

"We don't want the Clemenceau," 70-year-old Jean Kennedy of the Friends of Hartlepool, which has received 15,000 signatures to a petition against Able UK, told AFP.

"We already have a lot of polluting industries for a town this size," he said, adding that Hartlepool, which has 92,000 inhabitants, "already has the highest cancer and asbestosis rate of the country and an average life expectancy 13 years lower than the national average."

Able UK chief executive Peter Stephenson said it's all a fuss over nothing.

"Since 1985, we have been dismantling oil and gas platforms that have the same type of waste as these ships," he said. "We've been doing it without a single complaint from anybody in all those years."


This is not the first time that Able UK and the Friends of Hartlepool have clashed - in 2003, the company won a contract to dismantle more than 10 American naval ships, though only four made the trip to Able's shipyard.

The company did not even begin dismantling them until the mid-2008, the process having been delayed by litigation.

"We don't want to become the final destination of the toxic ships coming from all over the world," Kennedy said, adding: "The whole Russian fleet is waiting to come."

But the Hartlepool group has struggled to find major supporters. Even globally-known environmental groups such as Greenpeace prefer ships like the Clemenceau be dismantled in Western countries.

Before Able UK was awarded the contract to dismantle it, the Clemenceau was to be taken apart in India - but that plan was torpedoed after critics said it would endanger the lives of scrapyard workers there.

Its return to France was hailed as a major victory by environmentalist groups, who had fought tooth and nail to block its transfer to Alang on India's west coast, home to the world's largest shipbreaking yard.

The aircraft carrier, named after France's World War I prime minister Georges Clemenceau, was decommissioned in 1997. It saw action in the Lebanese civil war of the 1980s and the 1991 Gulf war.

Among Hartlepool's residents, opposition to Able UK's plans is hard to find. Of 20 people interviewed on the city's streets, half were not even aware of the controversy.

For Jerry Drewitt, the harbourmaster at Tees and Hartlepool port authority, the controversy surrounding the dismantling of the Clemenceau is a non-issue.

"The Clemenceau is not outstanding," he said. "Even if her shape is unusual, she's not larger than the ships that we handle every day and that have on board lots of cargo that are hazardous to people, like chemicals and oil."

"Why has tonnes of asbestos become a problem? We built these ships, we have to recycle them properly."


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