The Government appeared to be increasingly confused last night over what do to about the so-called ghost ships, the four toxically contaminated ex-US Navy vessels heading to Britain to be scrapped.
All were originally to be dismantled by a company at Hartlepool on Teesside, Able UK, but the Environment Agency, responding to public concerns, has now withdrawn its permission.
The ships are still being towed steadily towards British waters and are expected to arrive next week. And yesterday the Environment Agency, the Department for Environment Food and Rural Affairs and the Department for Transport all indicated they had no power to stop them.
The situation prompted Peter Mandelson, Hartlepool's MP, to issue an impatient statement calling for the Government to get its act together.
"What started out as an environmentally necessary commercial contract has gone very sour," he said. "All the relevant authorities originally gave a green light to this work and they cannot now run away from their obligations to safeguard my constituents' interests and the wider public interest."
The Environment Agency is the competent authority for the ships being broken up but has no powers over them in transit. Its chief executive, Baroness Young of Old Scone, has written to the US maritime administration asking it to take the ships back, but has as yet received no reply.
Alistair Darling, the Transport Secretary, says he has no powers to direct the ships back, while Margaret Beckett, the Environment Secretary says she is "closely watching the situation."
Yesterday the High Court granted an injunction blocking any dismantling work on the ships until crucial legal challenges have been heard, probably in December.
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