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Mothballed Ships Sail into Environmental Storm

As the first two ships of an aging and decrepit U.S. naval fleet edge closer to Britain, legal actions and harsh words fly in a row over whether the contaminated vessels should be dismantled in the UK.

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As the ghost ships get closer to the UK, their future remains in doubt

Tales of ghost ships appearing from the gloom may have been the stuff of legend 200 years ago but on Tuesday, two retired U.S. Navy ships bound for the port of Hartlepool will sail into British waters and into an environmental and legal storm.

The two rusting hulks are part of a small flotilla of 13 de-commissioned naval vessels which are all destined to take the potentially hazardous trip across the Atlantic to the dry dock in the north of England to be broken up and disposed of. However, environmentalists and local communities are up in arms because the "ghost fleet" is contaminated with asbestos, PCB’s and heavy oil which could pollute huge areas of coastline if the fragile hulls are breached.

The Canopus and Caloosahatchee, the first to head for the UK from what was thought to be their final resting place on the James River near Newport in Virginia, are part of a $16 million deal struck between an American subsidiary of British salvage company Able UK and the U.S. Maritime Administration. The subsidiary has chosen to carry out the work at Able's Hartlepool shipyard.

Legal proceedings

Britain’s pollution monitor, the Environment Agency (EA), approved Able UK's plans to scrap the ships and the first ships from the fleet prepared to leave. But from the moment news of the agreement was leaked, green organizations have been working to stop the ships and their contaminated cargo from reaching their final destination. Friends of the Earth, which believes the U.S. should handle its own waste and not turn the UK into "America’s dustbin," started legal action and took the case to the High Court.

US Giftschiff auf dem Weg nach Großbritannien

Before the case was heard, the EA withdrew its permission for the deal to go ahead saying other vital consents, including planning permission to build a dry dock where the ships would be dismantled, were not in place. The Agency added that it would be illegal for the ships to dock in Hartlepool without permission, leaving the already sailing ships in legal limbo.

Ships ordered to return

At the hearing last Wednesday, the High Court issued a block on Able UK, preventing the company from beginning its work on the ships when they arrive. Two days later, Margaret Beckett, the environment secretary, then ordered the ships to return to the US on the grounds of "international rules and Community law". She added that the ships could dock temporarily on Teesside for the winter until conditions are safe for their reverse trip across the Atlantic.

However, the fate of the two ships, and the two others currently en route, will not be fully decided until after a judicial review scheduled for next month.

Supporters of the Able UK deal, which would create 200 jobs in the Hartlepool area, say that the decision to block the agreement was the result of scaremongering by the environmental campaigners. Former cabinet minister and Member of Parliament for Hartlepool, Peter Mandelson, said Friends of the Earth had "alarmed and whipped up public opinion in Hartlepool and many fears amongst my constituents, and I think that is an irresponsible thing to do."

"Like all ships, they contain some hazardous materials, but they are not inherently dangerous and they are not carrying any toxic cargo," Mandelson added.

Widespread European concern

Friends of the Earth responded by saying that their stance was not an isolated one. "We are not alone in having serious concerns about these ships, the Environment Agency, the environment minister, the secretary of state for the environment and the EU's commissioner for the environment all now support our call for the ships to be returned," the group's executive director, Tony Juniper, said in a statement.

The four ships at sea -- and the nine others waiting for their own possible journey -- come from a much bigger fleet of about 70, all crammed together in the middle of the James River, where they have been sitting and rusting for decades, some having taken up residence during World War II.

Unwelcome graveyard

The James River location is just one of several floating junkyards around the United States, where naval vessels, freighters and other merchant ships are sent to rot. The original idea behind the creation of these floating graveyards was nothing so final. In fact, they were created to keep the vessels on hand in case of a national emergency.

But their country never called on them again. Instead they just sat in the river.

Global trade

When America’s own environmentalists began complaining about the threat caused by U.S. scrap yards dismantling the ships, dozens of ships were sent to Pakistan, India, Bangladesh and other less-fussy countries in huge deals during the '80s and '90s.

Chemietanker havariert

The global trade in toxic waste is a highly volatile topic.

Far from being the exception, such activity appears to be the rule. “The United States are not the only offenders in this trade,” a Greenpeace spokesperson told DW-WORLD. “While the U.K. appears to be the victim in this case, Britain in one of the largest exporters of vessels and toxic waste, mainly to countries such as India and China where the working standards are lower and the risk of pollution on delivery is higher.”

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