The Financial Times – ‘Toxic armada’ stirs up a storm

(Written by Chris Tighe)

16 September 2003  – It’s a dirty job but somebody has to do it. Ship-breaking is far from glamorous but, for Teesside-based Able UK, marine decommissioning – to use its genteel name – is an international business opportunity.

When Able, already experienced in dismantling and reclaiming oil rigs, clinched a $17m (£10m) contract to dismantle 13 ageing merchant vessels from the US National Defense Reserve Fleet it hoped this could lead to more overseas work.

But so far, the main consequence of the deal with the US government’s Marine Administration has been media controversy between environmental groups and Able over the “toxic ghost fleet”. Some articles have been accompanied by eerie photographs of lines of old grey vessels, coated in gangrenous rust, rotting away at their moorings in the James River, Virginia.

Able’s plan is to have the vessels towed more than 4,000 miles across the Atlantic to its dry dock at Graythorp on the edge of Hartlepool. Here, near the nuclear power station, the sewage treatment works and a chemicals manufacturing plant, they would be dismantled. For many locals living near Able’s Teesside Environmental Reclamation and Recycling Centre, this contract, promising to employ 200 people, is a job opportunity in a town with long experience in dirty, heavy work and high unemployment.

Some environmentalists, however, believe this is an “opportunity” Hartlepool would be crazy to embrace. Friends of the Earth claims the vessels are contaminated with lead, mercury, oil and carcinogenic polychlorinated biphenyls and are so decrepit they could break up en route, causing serious pollution. Norman Baker, the Liberal Democrat environment spokesman, has described the plan as “an environmental disaster in the making”.

However, Able insists the vessels are not heavily contaminated, have no liquid PCBs and offer no more risk to the marine environment than any other ship. “Do they think I want to commit commercial and industrial suicide?” asks Peter Stephenson, Able’s managing director. “I am in the business of creating jobs and security on Teesside, not pressing the self-destruct button.”

Able also argues that unregulated ship-breaking on beaches in countries such as Bangladesh is a far worse option for the global environment than towing vessels to its yard.

For Hartlepool, the controversy is not only about jobs. With its smart marina and tourist facilities, the town is more image-aware these days, even though it did select a man in a monkey suit as its first elected mayor. Stuart Drummond, the mayor, has admitted he is uncomfortable with the contract. So too is Durham county council, worried the “toxic armada” will threaten their £10m clean up of Durham’s beaches.

Fiona Hall, Lib Dem north-east spokesperson, has suggested some US ship- breaking interests may be deliberately talking up the pollution risk, because they oppose the contract going to a UK company.

What is clear is that the vessels cannot leave without clearance from various regulatory authorities. The Environment Agency has given its approval under waste shipment regulations but the Department for Transport’s Maritime and Coastguard Agency is waiting for more documentation from Able before deciding whether to give permission for the towing operation. Without MCA clearance, the US Coastguard is unlikely to let the journey go ahead.

Even if these hurdles are surmounted, the towing company may have to consult other countries through whose waters the vessels could pass.