Campaigners win court ruling in battle to block US 'ghost fleet'

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The Independent Online

Campaigners won a High Court challenge yesterday against plans to dismantle a "ghost fleet" of former US naval ships in Britain.

Friends of the Earth (FoE) succeeded in a judicial review hearing at the court in London after arguing that the UK must "not become the dustbin for the US navy's old ships".

Mr Justice Sullivan said that a modification in September to a waste management licence allowing the ships to be broken up in Teesside by Able UK was "legally flawed".

Able UK will now have to apply for a new licence, which will involve a full environmental impact assessment.

The court was told the Environment Agency allowed the licence to be modified on 30 September, but yesterday the agency agreed in court with FoE that its decision was invalid.

Mr Justice Sullivan said: "This defendant [the Environment Agency] is correct to concede its decision cannot stand." The judge said he would quash the modification order next week, when the case returns to court to deal with a planning row over Able UK's plans for the construction of a dry dock at Hartlepool. He said he hoped to give the full reasons for his decision on Thursday.

The judge said the ships, which made the 4,000-mile trip from the James river in Virginia, would be allowed to remain in the UK over the winter.

David Wolfe, representing FoE, told the court that the American plans threatened important European conservation areas. Campaigners said the ageing ships were in "a very poor condition" and contained heavy diesel, asbestos and the banned carcinogenic polychlorinated biphenyls. The wildlife site most threatened is Seal Sands, which is protected under European and international law, as an important feeding ground for more than 20,000 birds.

Able UK wants to decommission 13 ships - the other nine have been held in Virginia. Tony Juniper, FoE's executive director, said: "Our job now is to prevent the US abdicating its environmental responsibilities by exporting the other nine ships." Able UK says the ships pose no threat to the environment and its contract, worth £10m, would create 200 jobs.