Page last updated at 07:16 GMT, Saturday, 7 February 2009

A controversial end to 'The Clem'

By Ruth Clegg
BBC News

The Clemenceau carried helicopters in the first Gulf War

The Clemenceau, an aircraft carrier that was once the pride of the French Navy, is soon to be stripped for recycling in a dry dock on Teesside.

The 32,700 tonne vessel was the lead ship of its class and was seen as giving its country credence in the battle of the seas.

Affectionately known as the "The Clem", it has seen every ocean and sailed more than 1,000,000 nautical miles.

The ship was named after Georges Clemenceau, the prime minister who led France to victory in the final year of World War I.

The Clemenceau was decommissioned in 1997 and after a colourful 40-year career, was stripped down to a giant shell and left to float on the water it had sailed for decades.

Launched in December 1957
Decommissioned October 1997
Built at Brest shipyard in France
Length is 255m (836ft)
Weight is 32,780 tonnes
Speed of 32 knots (59 km/hr)
Carried total of 40 aircraft

Now, after five years of controversy, containing asbestos and dubbed the "toxic ghost ship", the Clemenceau is to be laid to rest at Graythorp in Hartlepool on Sunday.

Its final passing, however, has been marred by a legal battle over whether the vessel should come to Teesside at all.

An unsuccessful fight against the Health and Safety Executive's decision to grant a waste certificate to Hartlepool-based Able UK, went as far as the High Court in 2008.

Campaigners claimed it should not be broken up on Teesside because of its toxic elements - it contains 700 tonnes of asbestos-contaminated material.

'Dumping ground'

Able UK, which was fined 20,000 in 2007 for improperly disposing of asbestos, convinced the Health and Safety Executive that its methods were reliable and that it was "leading the way in recycling ships to the highest possible environmental standards".

Iris Ryder, of Friends of Hartlepool, said: "The eyes of the world will be on the Graythorp dock on Sunday.

Able UK
The company will carry out on the biggest recycling projects in the world

"And people will see how they have been misled, the disposal of this aircraft carrier will make Hartlepool the dumping ground of the country.

"It will affect tourism as well as the health and safety of local people.

"This company does not have a good track record with keeping asbestos under control."

The huge job of breaking up one of the largest ships in Europe, as well as four other US "ghost ships" will create 200 jobs in the North East during the recession.

Able UK chairman Peter Stephenson said: "This is the largest dry dock in the world which will enable us to do the remediation work and then the dismantling on site.

"It is the best environmental option and, to make sure we are keeping carbon emissions as low as possible, we want to get local workers into the jobs. So local people will definitely benefit from the project.

Ghost ships
Four 'ghost ships' have been in Hartlepool since 2003

"The only material we cannot recycle is the asbestos and that will be safely buried in a landfill. It is a rock and it will go back where it belongs."

The aircraft carrier, which helped French peacekeepers in the Lebanon civil war and transported 40 helicopters in the first Gulf War, had struggled to find a resting place.

It was going to be demolished off the coast of India in 2006, but was deemed too toxic so was sent back to France.

President Jacques Chirac demanded its return amid criticism that he sent his country's waste abroad while being said to "lecture the world on the environment".

Able UK's successful bid for the contract, which is worth about 8.7m (10m euros), will make it one of the biggest ship recycling projects in the world.

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