Meanwhile, the environmental campaign was picking up steam. Days after the ship departed, Turkish officials asked their Brazilian counterparts for a new inventory of hazardous substances. Dissatisfied with the response, Turkish officials canceled import permission.
The ship and its tug, which by then had reached Gibraltar, had to turn back. Environmental groups counted it as an enormous victory.
São Paulo’s journey, though, was far from over. As it approached Brazil in October, the navy ordered it to remain off the northeastern coast instead of returning to Rio de Janeiro, its port of departure.
At that point, after two trans-Atlantic crossings, the ship needed to dock for maintenance. But the environmental campaign had apparently worked too well. Spooked local officials in Brazil pressured ports not to take the ship, and it was repeatedly refused. The navy never offered its own bases, for reasons officials have never explained. So, the ship and the tug started doing circles.
Months passed, and, as minor damage started appearing in the hull, MSK Maritime Services & Trading, a partner in the recycling project with Sok Denizcilik, grew desperate. The company needed a harbor to patch up the damage, and the tugboat was guzzling 20 tons of fuel a day. By January, the MSK reported that it had lost $5 million on the venture.
Environmental groups said they were baffled that the navy wouldn’t take the ship back and was refusing to say why it wouldn’t. Under the Basel Convention, countries are required to re-import toxic waste that they are unable to successfully export. Activists say Brazil is violating the convention by not allowing the ship to dock. Officials deny this, on the grounds that the ship is in Brazilian waters.
The Brazilian Navy did not respond to repeated requests for comment for this article. In a prepared statement, it said that, despite no longer being the ship’s owner, it has followed the case with attention and that owners of the ship had so far not fulfilled the requirements for docking permission.