High Court bid to turn back toxic 'ghost fleet'

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The dispute over the arrival of a fleet of American ships contaminated with toxic chemicals is expected to deepen today with the launch of a High Court bid to stop them docking in the UK.

Four former US navy vessels are crossing the Atlantic en route to Hartlepool, where they are due to be scrapped. The departure of a further nine "ghost ships" from the US to England has been delayed pending the outcome of a court case filed by American environmentalists.

British politicians, residents and environmentalists have vociferously opposed the arrival of the ships amid growing fears of an environmental crisis. Friends of the Earth and a group of residents are due to launch legal proceedings in the High Court today in an attempt to prevent them from docking in Hartlepool.

Yesterday, councillors in Hartlepool held an emergency meeting, during which a unanimous resolution was passed urging the Government to intervene to re-route the ships due to health and safety fears.

Carl Richardson, the chairman of Hartlepool council, said: "It is a very serious situation we are facing and the Secretary of State for Transport must use his powers now and order these ships to return to the USA."

The Department for Transport issued a statement saying that a decision would lie in the hands of the Environment Agency rather than Alistair Darling, the Transport Secretary. It said: "Under the Merchant Shipping Act 1995, the Transport Secretary can only intervene to secure the safety of ships or to prevent or reduce pollution when ships are in territorial waters. These ships are under tow and under control outside UK territorial waters."

The Conservatives called for the Government to resolve the confusion over whether it was Whitehall or the Environment Agency that was responsible for the ships, which risked a "potential environmental crisis".

David Lidington, the shadow Environment Secretary, said: "One part of Government says the ghost ships must return to the US. Another part of the same Government refuses to support these demands.

"Tony Blair is a North-east MP. If his ministers can't agree over how to resolve this environmental crisis he should knock heads together and make clear who in government is in charge of sorting out this mess."

Concerns raised by politicians and residents focused yesterday on the effect on the environment in the Wetlands area - a site of special scientific interest - near the Able UK yard, where the vessels are due to be scrapped.

Moss Boddy, a Hartlepool councillor, said: "When you are talking about a site of such considerable importance nationally and internationally, you can't just say it's going to be all right. It is not just about the birds or about the seals. It is also about the environment in which people live."

Elaine Gilligan, policy director for Friends of the Earth, added: "This whole episode has been a complete fiasco which could have been avoided if America used its own perfectly adequate facilities to deal with its waste."