The two highly-polluted American "ghost ships" which
have courted controversy were last night facing the
prospect of being turned back across the Atlantic
after the Environment Agency withdrew permission for
them to be dismantled in Britain.
The 58-year-old cargo vessels Canisteo and
Caloosahatchie are expected to enter British waters
off Falmouth on Wednesday before docking at the
Hartlepool shipyard where they were due to be scrapped
in a 16m contract involving 11 other former US naval
The Environment Agency, which has been the subject of
strong pressure from campaigners to ban the project,
yesterday announced that it had withdrawn its approval
for the British contractor, Able UK, to complete the
Environmentalists said the announcement represented a
decisive victory in their battle to overturn the
decision to allow the 13-strong fleet to be towed
4,500 miles from Virginia instead of dismantling them
in American ship yards.
Each of the ships in the so-called "toxic fleet" is
contaminated with chemicals including asbestos, heavy
diesel and carcinogenic polychlorinated biphenyls or
The Environment Agency, which originally said it was
satisfied the project did not pose a pollution risk,
said the waste disposal licence necessary for the
operation was now invalid and several other permits
from other authorities remained outstanding.
A spokeswoman said: "Despite our strong advice to the
contrary, these ships have left the US without all the
necessary permissions in place.
"We have reached a decision that the waste management
licence is no longer valid and therefore the Able UK
facility cannot be used. Among the options that they
now have is that the vessels should go back to
America." Friends of the Earth - which claimed that
its threat of legal action against the Environment
Agency was what had forced it to withdraw Able UK's
licence - said it believed the decision meant the
ships may not even be allowed to enter UK waters.
Phil Michaels, FoE's legal director, said: "There are
grounds for arguing that these ships must not enter
British waters because they have no current
destination and represent a very significant pollution
risk. The only justifiable course of action is for the
Environment Agency to make it clear that they must
return to the United States."
The decision to send the vessels across the Atlantic
drew widespread criticism over the risk it would pose
to wildlife. The EU environment commissioner Margot
Wallstrom said last night that she hoped the ships
would now be dealt with in America.
It is understood that the two vessels, which were due
in Hartlepool on 9 November and are being closely
followed by two more moribund cargo ships, may now
head for the Azores to await further developments.
Able UK, which said the dismantling contract would
create 200 jobs, had planned to scrap the ships by
enclosing them in a rock-filled dam to form a dry dock
which would be emptied to allow the work to take
The company last night confirmed that as well as its
defunct waste disposal licence, planning permission
applications relating to the dry dock were still
outstanding with the Department for the Environment,
Food and Rural Affairs.
Peter Stephenson, the company's managing director,
said he believed the relevant permissions would still
Mr Stephenson said yesterday: "Given that similar
approvals have been given in the past, we are
confident that these will be in place by