THE GHOST SHIPS OF
For the first time in my life I
have been on the verge of texting, emailing or calling radio stations as they
provided information about and commented on, the slow progress of the Canopus
and the Caloosahatchee towards the UK in general and Hartlepool in particular.
The two Cs, well it makes a
change from “ghost ships” or “toxic waste vessels”, are still owned by the
America government and are apparently to be broken up in a dock in Hartlepool by a company called Able UK Ltd.
But now they’re not going to be
broken up. They are going to be towed back across the Atlantic because they are
an environmental problem and contain, to quote the Guardian, “oil and fuel”,
“non liquid PCBs” and “asbestos”. Or possibly because Able UK have applied for
planning permission to turn the basin in which they have previously carried out
scrapping activities into a drydock, and permission has not been granted by the
What the hell is going on????
The first people to try to
prevent the departure of the ships from America were Friends of the Earth. I
used to support them when they were principally concerned with preventing whales
being turned into dog food. But now I have no confidence in them at all.
Virtually all their campaigns are intended to increase their membership and
hence their revenue rather than improving the state of the planet.
remember the Brent Spar protest (Later note - If you do, you will remember that
it was Greanpeace who occupied the Brent Spar) . It was a very high profile occupation of the
spar as it was being towed towards the Atlantic for disposal because it apparently contained “toxic
chemicals”. And although the intended disposal in deep water in the Atlantic did not take place, it
turned out that the “toxic chemicals” were limited to a few cubic metres of
We also, apparently, have the
people of Hartlepool protesting as one, due to the possible societal risks
relating to the break-up of these ships on the edge of the river Tees.
For heaven’s sake, lets try and
get this into perspective.
Anyone passing Hartlepool going
north on the A19 and looking at the landscape would find it laughable that the
citizens of that city could possibly be protesting about a small commercial
operation which might or might not result in the leakage of limited quantities
of diesel contaminated water into the river. From the point on the A19 where the
traveler comes across the sign to Hartlepool the north east horizon is dominated by the stacks,
tanks and chimneys of the Billingham chemical plant. There are square miles of
pipes and processing structures. Every pressure vessel on the site would
probably be capable of causing more damage to the environment than the wanton
destruction of 100 old American supply ships in the river Tees – all at once.
Then there are the ships
themselves. We are not told by the media exactly what these craft are, but it
appears that the first two are former US Navy support vessels. There are many
support vessels and warships rafted together in sheltered waters all over the
east coast of the North American continent. The US Navy kept them just in case –
in the same way as many parents keep the old baby gear up in the loft – well you
never know. But ships do have a life and eventually if nothing is done they will
rust away and sink at their moorings, and it appears that the two Cs have
reached the point where such a fate can be visualized as a possibility.
In greater detail they are
therefore tankers, provided with some enhanced means of pumping fuel to other
vessels. They have engines, but it is almost certain that they were efficiently
mothballed, and this process would involve the removal of the standard
lubricating oil and its replacement with special preserving fluid. In their
normal duties it is virtually certain that they would burn gas oil, or marine
diesel, and that they would carry as cargo gas oil and aviation spirit. Assuming
that there is some of either of these liquids were left in the ships, they are
both in the more volatile range of refined spirits and if spilt on water will
evaporate until there is no trace of them left.
As for the asbestos and PCBs.
It is true that virtually all ships built before 1970 contain asbestos and all
electrical equipment constructed before 1975 contains non liquid PCBs. We have
learnt how to deal with these products. After all, they are in our houses and
public buildings too. My company was involved, about 15 years ago in assisting
an environmental contractor with the removal of about fifty tons of heavy fuel
oil from the central heating tanks in a more or less derelict government
building in central London.
We worked below ground for several weeks. At the same time a large squad of
experts were removing the asbestos from the areas above the ground. The building
was between the Houses of Parliament and the Labour party headquarters in
Millbank Tower, and there was a hospital just across the road. No-one had the
slightest interest in what we were doing, but there is little doubt that the
contents of that building could have caused more damage to the environment than
what is currently at sea on the so-called “ghost ships”.
What of the future? If the
environmental lobby is capable or sending these ships back to America to rejoin
the rest of the fleet what will then be done with them. Will they be allowed to
rot where they lie while consultants are paid large sums of money to try to come
up with another solution? Will they just sink at their moorings while the
solution is not being found? Will they be towed of to Bangladesh where the
population is less concerned with risks, both to the environment and to the
people who are doing the work. And if no answer is found what the hell are we –
the people of the planet earth – going to do with the rest of the warships
rafted up in America, the nuclear submarines tied up in Rosyth, the Russian
fleet potentially polluting the Barents Sea, the hundreds of derelict merchant
ships lying at anchor in the Bay of Salamis to the north of Athens, and last but
not least the hundreds of ships built before 1980 still ploughing their way
across the oceans of the world, but nearing the end of their useful life?
Does it not occur to anyone
that Able UK are developing a skill which will help to preserve our battered
planet, not destroy it. They know how to take ships to pieces safely. They must
conform to the most stringent safety regulations overseen by the most diligent
regulator in the world – the Health and Safety Executive. They have got the job
because the Americans do not have the resources themselves, not because it is
necessary for them to export their problems. Dismantling these relatively
innocuous vessels in Hartlepool, is great opportunity, for the Company with the
contract, the working population of Teesside, the ship-owners of the world and
finally the population of the planet.
After this they might be able
to tackle the really difficult stuff.
Vic Gibson. November 2003.
Footnote - December 17th.
Yesterday three residents of Hartlepool were granted an injunction preventing
Able Uk starting work on the ships until they have got planning permission - one
assumes for the conversion of the dock they are using into a drydock. Friends of
the earth have also managed to prove that the Waste Disposal licence which Able
Uk have is not valid.
These people say that they do
not object to the ships being broken up, but they must be broken up in the USA.
Do they actually mean that or do they mean "broken up somewhere in the world".
Are we to have international rules on where ships
are to be broken up. Will it depend on flag, British ships being broken up in
the UK, Greek ships in Greece, Liberian ships in Liberia? Or possibly it might
be necessary to return old ships to the country where they were built. If it is
the last, Able will be doing a lot of business.
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