Fears over Toxic Ships' temporary Home on Tees
|John Vidal||The Guardian|
|and Paul Brown||8 November 2003
Campaigners raise new concerns as last-minute agreement allows ghost vessels to spend winter in Hartlepool before being returned to US
Hartlepool has agreed to offer a temporary home to two toxic ships that have been towed across the Atlantic - forced by the courts to tie-up in the Tees rather than go to a dry dock for dismantling.
The ships will spend the winter in the Teesside port and be returned to America in the spring.
Yesterday the Department of Transport spent another day in a desperate search for a safe haven for the two vessels, knowing they would reach the entrance to the Channel by 8am today. The Department of Environment said last night that Teesside port authority had agreed to take them.
The problem for the government was that any ship reaching the Casquettes, the rocks that mark the start of the Channel's shipping traffic system, has to state its ultimate destination. So the two former US navy vessels, both under tow, had to be found a designated safe haven.
The ships, the Canisteo and the Caloosahatchee, began their journey on October 7 when Dutch tugs towed them out of the James river in Virginia.
They are about 50 years old and contaminated with chemicals, including asbestos and heavy diesel. Until October, they lay chained to other ships from US navy's "ghost fleet", neglected by the au thorities and reviled by the local communities who called the fleet a "toxic time bomb".
As they approach British waters after a 4,000-mile tow, they are vessels that only one man wants.
Peter Stephenson of Able UK, a small Teesside business which signed an £11m deal with the US authorities last spring to dismantle 13 of the "ghost ships", stands to make at least £5m if he can scrap them. He could make another £3m from the sweetener of two partially-built oil tankers which were offered by the US government to whoever took the hulks.
If the deal is ever completed, Mr Stephenson will be able to equip his dock with a giant crane and new gates, leaving him better equipped to tender for lucrative European contracts to break up nuclear submarines, and possibly take more of the US ghost fleet.
But little has gone right for Mr Stephenson in the past two months, and government support for his project has now vanished. A local poll found that 90% of people in Hartlepool were against the boats coming.
The first major problem came when Able UK was found not to have the correct planning permissions from the council.
Mr Stephenson needed permission to seal the basin he owned with an earth dam and turn it into a dry dock - a development that is essential for the whole operation.
While he maintains that the now defunct Teesside development corporation had given him permission, neither he nor the council have been able to produce any record of this. Able UK is expected to challenge the council next month in the courts.
Mr Stephenson then applied to the Department of the Environment to build the earth dam, but the Environment Agency said the waste management licence that it granted Able UK in September did not cover ships.
Lawyers for the Environment Agency also said the modification to the licence the agency granted Able UK had been incorrectly approved because the environmental assessments had been conducted on the assumption that the work would be carried out in a dry dock. After a legal challenge by Friends of the Earth, the agency quashed its permissions.
It got worse. Although lawyers for the Department of Transport and the Coastguard Agency were not concerned about the state of the ships in British waters, lawyers for the Department of the Environment found that under international law, the ships had to be turned back because they had no dock to go to. The environment secretary, Margaret Beckett, reluctantly agreed and announced this week that the American government had been asked to take the ships back. But she accepted that it was environmentally unsound and not practical to expect them to undertake another 4,000 mile voyage.
By Wednesday night, the government had a legal and diplomatic nightmare on its hands.
The US argued that Britain was responsible for them because a British company had signed the contract, but British lawyers argued that they were, technically, still US government property.
The costs of the debacle will mount as the port that takes the ships will certainly charge a premium price. But this price tag should be responsibility of the American government.
Under international law a transfrontier shipment of waste has to be underwritten with a financial guarantee to cover any eventualities. In this instance the guarantee - underwritten by the US government exchequer - would come into play.
Joop Timmermans, managing director of ITC, the Dutch tug company which is towing the two ships, said he expected them to be off Dover by Monday.
He said he had received his orders from Able UK, but had heard nothing from the company since. "They may be very old ships, but they withstood the journey very well despite some heavy seas," he said.
The decision to go to Hartlepool, even temporarily, has sparked strong reactions. Phil Michaels, of Friends of the Earth, said: "This seems an extraordinary decision. The Hartlepool council voted unanimously against the ships coming. The port authority has gone against the wishes of the town.
"It seems to me completely wrong to take them all the way up the Channel, through all those crowded shipping lanes. The could be overwintered somewhere in the south," he said.
Margaret Sneddon, a Hartlepool resident who has campaigned against the ships, said "The whole town will be very distressed. There is nowhere suitable to store them. We will never get rid of them now.
The Tees is only a shipping lane. The river is open to the North Sea. With the bad weather we get, I doubt if they can be made safe."
In statement last night, the Department of the Environment said that no other site had been able to take the ships safely at such short notice.
Mrs Beckett said the Hartlepool berth would secure the safety of the vessels and the protection of the environment. "When the ships arrive at Hartlepool, the Environment Agency will place requirements on them to ensure the environment is fully protected and that the ships remain ready for return to the US," she said.