Yard to lose £3.4m if toxic US ships are ordered home

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The breaker's yard where the first of the so-called toxic ghost ships docked yesterday will lose millions of pounds if its dismantling deal is broken, it was claimed last night.

The breaker's yard where the first of the so-called toxic ghost ships docked yesterday will lose millions of pounds if its dismantling deal is broken, it was claimed last night.

Peter Stephenson, managing director of the Hartlepool firm, Able UK, which has a contract to dismantle 13 of the former United States navy ships, said a £3.4m bond was at stake.

He said: "There is a lot of money riding on it and if this doesn't go ahead this is the end of the whole dry dock which is a tremendous asset for the area. I have had inquiries for hundreds of millions of pounds' worth of work but if we do not get this then it will be the end of the refurbishment of the dry dock.

"We can't understand why this got such a high profile. There is no risk here whatsoever. We would never have brought these ships in if there was a risk."

But campaigners, including the shadow environment minister, Caroline Spelman, called for the immediate removal of the first ship. As residents waved banners bearing statements such as "America Waives The Rules" Ms Spelman urged Tony Blair to raise the issue with President George Bush during next week's visit, saying: "America has the capacity to deal with its own waste."

As the rusting hull of the Caloosahatchee, a 58-year-old vessel carrying more than 4,000 tons of toxic cargo, berthed at Greythorp shipyard in Hartlepool, environmental campaigners demanded a public inquiry.

The ship, a veteran of the US sixth fleet which once refuelled aircraft carriers in the Mediterranean, will be held at the shipyard in storage until the end of a legal battle over whether it can be dismantled on Teesside or sent back to the James River in Virginia.

The 644ft-long ship, decommissioned since 1990, will be followed by a second "ghost ship", the Canisteo, due to arrive at the shipyard today after a five-week voyage.

Tony Juniper, the chief executive of Friends of the Earth, said: "We have been raising concerns over the permission for these boats for months and the Environment Agency indicated the ships should return before they arrived in UK waters. The bottom line in this argument is what American environmentalists feel about these ships.

"The US has identified these ships as representing an immediate environmental risk in the James River, which is why there was real political pressure to remove them. If they represent an environmental hazard in the James River, how can they not be a environmental risk here?" he said.

A telephone poll conducted by the Hartlepool Mail found 91 per cent of voters against the fleet's arrival. And Barbara Crosbie, who lives a few miles from the landfill site where the chemical waste would be buried, felt the ships' disposal reflected the arrogance of a country shipping its rubbish into another's backyard. "The USA should learn to deal with their own rubbish. The last thing we need is other people's rubbish. As Hartlepudlians, we don't want to be used as the world's dustbin," she said.

But Craig McGarvey, the Environment Agency's North of England area manager, said that the move to dismantle contaminated vessels in a developed country was environmentally beneficial. He said: "We actually need more facilities like this in the UK."

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