Two toxically contaminated ex-US Navy ships, heading to Britain for a dismantling that cannot now take place, will be stored in British waters until they can be sent back to the US, the Government announced last night.
The two lead vessels of the fleet of so-called "ghost ships", originally coming to Britain to be broken up by a company at Hartlepool on Teesside, Able UK, have now nearly reached the Channel after being towed across the Atlantic by tugs.
However, since they set out from the US coast where they have been laid up for years, the permission to dismantle them has been withdrawn from the company by the Environment Agency, and there have been continuous protests from environmentalists about the pollution danger they allegedly pose. Two more ships are following some distance behind.
This week the Government has seemed at a loss as to what to do about all of them, with various departments passing responsibility elsewhere. But last night Margaret Beckett, the Environment Secretary, announced that the lead ships would be allowed to dock in their original destination, Hartlepool, before being returned to America.
No other port was able to take the ships at short notice, the Government said in a statement. "The UK Government and its agencies continue to work intensively with the United States authorities to resolve the issues associated with the other two ships currently in transit to the UK," the statement said.
Mrs Beckett said last night: "I have impressed on the US authorities that the proposed shipment of these vessels to Hartlepool for dismantling cannot be completed consistent with international rules and community law. In this situation the law requires the ships to be returned to the United States."
She said the immediate return of the first two ships was impracticable, but they would be stored at Hartlepool "pending their return to the US at the earliest opportunity".