Three men win 'ghost ship' legal challenge

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The Independent Online

Three men from Hartlepool won a High Court victory yesterday against plans to break up a fleet of contaminated former US navy ships on Teesside.

A senior judge said he would allow the application to stop Able UK, which has the contract for dismantling the so-called "ghost ships", from carrying out the work. He said that their planning permission was flawed.

The judge expressed "grave concern" that four of the ships had been brought across the Atlantic but he had not been shown planning permission, a waste management licence or an environmental assessment for the proposed work.

Mr Justice Sullivan, sitting in London, said he that he was not saying the documents did not exist, but he called for an urgent investigation "into the decision-making processes" which had led to him not being shown the documents.

The ruling was a victory for Neil Gregan, 25, Stephen Hall, 43, and Ben Marley, 18.

They said they recognised that the ships had to be be dismantled, but said that the US should be dealing with its own waste and environmental problems - "not towing them across the Atlantic to Hartlepool and then exposing local people and highly sensitive wildlife sites in the UK to environmental risks and potential pollution".

After a day-long hearing, Mr Justice Sullivan said that the planning permission relied on by Able UK was granted in 1997 and covered "the dismantling and refurbishing of redundant marine structures and equipment", such as those from the North Sea oil industry. Able UK and Hartlepool Borough Council, the local planning authority, had argued that, as a matter of "ordinary English" and in the context of the planning permission the words "marine structures" applied to all man-made objects made for use at sea, including ships.

Rejecting the submission, the judge said: "As a matter of ordinary English, one describes a ship as a ship, just as a spade is a spade and not a garden structure, even if it is a man-made object, made for use in the garden.

"In ordinary language, a ship is no more a marine structure than a car is a highway structure."

Last week the same judge ruled that the licence modification issued by the Environment Agency allowing ships to be broken up in Hartlepool "can not stand".

Phil Shiner, the solicitor representing the three men from Hartlepool, said: "My clients are delighted to have won this important victory for the environment. Able UK will have to apply for planning permission in the proper way and to assess all the environmental effects of this project."

Ben Marley, a student, said after the ruling: "This decision is a step towards a cleaner, more prosperous Hartlepool."

Able UK intended to scrap 13 ships. Four are in Hartlepool while nine are in the US.