Britain will not block US 'ghost ships'

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Two toxic "ghost ships" sold for scrap to a British company will be towed across the Atlantic after getting the all-clear from British safety authorities.

The Marine and Coastguard Agency announced yesterday that it would not block attempts to tow the two former US Navy vessels from Virginia to Teesside, despite intense criticism from environmentalists.

The two 58-year-old vessels, the Canisteo and Caloosahatchee, are part of a 13-strong flotilla of rusting vessels which was bought for £16m by Able UK - a recycling firm in Hartlepool. They are contaminated by poly-chlorinated biphenyls, asbestos and old diesel fuel.

The two ships come from a pool of over 100 decommissioned US navy vessels and cargo boats, known as the "ghost fleet", which have been laid up for decades on the James River on the eastern seaboard of the US.

The environment group Friends of the Earth was furious at yesterday's decision since Able UK has yet to get planning permission or environmental clearance to build the facility needed to break up the boats.

Tony Juniper, director of FoE, said: "These clapped-out, toxic boats should be disposed of in the US, and not sent on a hazardous 22-day journey across the Atlantic.

"People in the North-east will be justified in feeling badly let down by English Nature and the Environment Agency. These agencies appear to have done more to help this risky project proceed than protect the environment of Teesside."

However, Robin Middleton, the Government's maritime salvage adviser, said the decision had been cleared with the Irish, French and Belgian authorities, as well as British agencies such as English Nature.

"Clear and detailed contingency and passage arrangements were finally agreed late yesterday between the various jurisdictions and Able UK," he said. The Marine and Coastguard Agency would "closely monitor" the towing operation, he added.