Expert View: Were ghost ships really so scary?

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The Independent Online

The first of the so-called "ghost ships" arrived in Hartlepool earlier this month. These ageing merchant vessels from the US naval reserve fleet have been tugged across the Atlantic to be broken up for scrap metal by a company called Able UK.

When the first boat arrived, it was met by protesters carrying banners saying "No more toxic crap" and "Not America's dump". This public display of anger, and possibly fear, was prompted by safety concerns raised by the environmental group Friends of the Earth, which labelled the ships "toxic time bombs".

But the ships appear to be less of an environmental hazard than first thought. Indeed, if scientific findings discussed in this newspaper and elsewhere are correct, they are no more dangerous than any other large rusting vessels.

If this is the case, why did the arrival of the ghost ships in Britain lead to a public outcry and create such widespread media interest?

Polls by MORI show that, when it comes to providing information on environmental risks, non-governmental organisations working in this field are the most trusted bodies in the UK. No wonder that 90 per cent of people living in the Hartlepool area were opposed to the arrival of the ships. If we were told by a highly trusted source we were about to be inundated with toxic time bombs, most of us would worry.

The campaign against the ghost ships had a strong moral tone. Why couldn't the Americans dispose of their own vessels? As children, we are told to clean up after ourselves when we make a mess, so why weren't the Americans doing the same? It was simply not fair.

The campaign also played on anti-American feelings fuelled by the war in Iraq and the trade and environmental policies pursued by the current US administration. It is easy to be anti-American at the moment.

Then there were the great pictures (rusting hulks, eye-catching banners, irate pro-testers) illustrating an emotive story of little Hartlepool standing up to the might of the US government. Such a story can easily be exaggerated by the press.

There are several lessons to be learnt from this episode. First, regulators must streng-then the role of independent peer-reviewed science in the policy-making process. They should consider establishing panels of independent academics to advise them.

Second, there is a need for greater understanding of what risk-management experts call "risk-risk trade-offs" - the idea that when attention is focused on one particular risk, a potentially greater danger may be ignored. With regard to ghost ships, it is likely that governments and companies will continue to send redundant vessels to the Indian subcontinent to be broken up, rather than sending them to firms such as Able UK. The environment hazards involved in these existing arrangements are potentially far greater.

Finally, in an era of rapid globalisation, trading partners need to share their understanding of the science that underpins regulation. Explaining why the Hartlepool ghost ships could not have been broken up in the US might have helped to change attitudes among the British public and regulators.

As things stand, there have been several losers and no winners in this story. Able UK is less likely to become a leading operator in the ship-breaking industry; the public will trust the Environment Agency less for having backed down in its ruling that Able does not have licences to dismantle the ships; and Friends of the Earth will arguably be less credible in the eyes of regulators, opinion formers and maybe even the public at large.

Professor Ragnar Lofstedt is director of the King's Centre for Risk Management at King's College London.