'Ghost Ships' Scare Up Government Reversal

Ghost ship towed from America.
Ghost ship towed from America.
Industry Database

With two of the first four so-called 'ghost ships' towed from America to the UK for scrapping now moored at Hartlepool and the other two mid-Atlantic, uncertainty surrounds their future as the UK Environment Agency has reversed its position and declared its earlier approval of modification to Able UK 'swaste management license 'invalid'. This reversal followed the filing of Judicial Review papers with the High Court by Friends of the Earth and three Hartlepool residents.

The first four derelict American naval support vessels are part of a 13 vessel, £16m contract that breaker Able UK has signed with the US Maritime Administration. According to Det Norsk Veritas, the 13 ships contain 3,540 tonnes of oil, 1,402 tonnes of asbestos and 698 tonnes of solid and liquid polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs). In a report last year to Congress, the US Maritime Administration (MARAD) said, 'MARAD is gravely concerned about the environmental threat that currently exists with our highest risk vessels.' Three of the four vessels towed to the UK are among the 40 worst condition vessels from a fleet numbering more than 150 moored in environmentally sensitive estuarine habitats on the James River in Virginia. The proposed scrapping site at Hartlepool is adjacent to similar habitats which are protected by European and international law.

As the first two vessels left Virginia on 6 October, Hartlepool Borough Council informed Able UK that it did not have planning permission to build the bund/ cofferdam essential to the proposed breaking. The second two vessels left Virginia under tow from Dutch operators International Transport Contractors (ITC) 11 days later. Svitzer Wijsmuller took over harbour towage duties when the vessels reached the Tees fairway.

On 3 November, environment minister Elliott Morley urged the US to take the vessels back, prompting ITC to state that it would be 'highly irresponsible' of the British Government to turn the vessels back into worsening winter seas. ITC added that its tugs had insufficient bunkers to turn around as well as other jobs scheduled.

On 5 November, the High Court in London granted an injunction preventing any work from starting on the ships (apart from making them safe) at least until a further hearing scheduled for the week beginning 8 December. Able UK will mount a legal challenge to enable it to proceed with the breaking.

Environment Secretary Margaret Beckett said that in principal the first two vessels should return to the US but allowed them to be moored off Hartlepool until a return tow becomes more practical in the spring. 'The Environment Agency has made clear that the shipments are inconsistent with international regulations', she said. At the time of writing, it was not known if the second two vessels would be turned around.

The political dimension of the controversy was further inflamed on 8 November when local Hartlepool MP Peter Mandelson, a close ally of Prime Minister Tony Blair, accused environmentalists of scaremongering. Friends of the Earth responding by quoting a report from the Office of the Inspector General at the US Department of Transport which said: 'The vessels are deteriorating, contain hazardous substances and pose an immediate environmental threat.'

MJ Information No: 18807

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