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Old French Aircraft Carrier Sails into Trouble

A decommissioned French warship has set off an international controversy. Environmentalists says it is too contaminated to be dismantled at its final destination, a scrap yard in India. On Monday, India's supreme court barred the vessel from entering territorial waters until it made its final decision, slated for February.

After defending France for roughly four decades, and after failed efforts to dismantle it overseas in 2003, the Clemenceau is again facing an uncertain future. On December 31, it steamed out of the French port of Toulon, bound for Alang, India, home of the world's largest ship-breaking industry.

But India's supreme court has recommended the old warship should not be dismantled there. The reason: That remaining asbestos on the Clemenceau will endanger the health of workers at the Alang scrap yard.

Just how much asbestos the Clemenceau contains is a matter of dispute. Several environmental groups, including Greenpeace International, argue that hundreds of tons remain on board.

Martin Besieux is toxics campaign coordinator for Greenpeace International in Brussels. He says that French authorities are turning a blind eye on (ignoring) these issues, and saving money by passing any possible health problem the asbestos might cause on to India.

"They know it creates cancer," said Mr. Besieux. "And they have full legislation [in France] to compensate people. Now they will try to avoid these costs for themselves, and try to put it on the health and environment of India. That's a scandal."

But the French government argues that only about 45 tons of asbestos remain on board the Clemenceau, not the hundreds of tons that Greenpeace claims. And they suggest that the Basel Convention, which sets international standards for contaminated ships, does not apply to former war ships like the Clemenceau.

India is not the only country that has questioned the safety of the French vessel. Last week, Egypt's environment agency initially blocked the Clemenceau from passing through the Suez Canal, en route to India. But on Sunday, Egyptian authorities approved its transit through the canal.

Groups like Greenpeace argue the dispute is far larger than concerns over just one ship. Dozens of decommissioned battleships in France, Britain and the United States await dismantling, all of them carrying health risks. And poor countries like India lack strong legislation protecting workers in the ship-breaking industry, much less the means to enforce what legislation there is.

Ultimately, they say, international standards must be drawn up and adhered to -- in the same way that meat exports, for example, must meet local regulations. But for the moment, the Clemenceau's fate turns on just one decision: A ruling by India's supreme court on whether it can finally sail to Alang. That is expected on February 13.