This article relates directly to the one written about the Ghost Ships of Hartlepool - obviously someone was reading my stuff. This written in 2009.


A week or so ago I was included in the distribution list of an email issued by the French maritime authorities for the attention of the the Secretary of State's Representative - Maritime Salvage and Intervention (SOSREP). The email concerned the permission to tow the Q790 from Brest to Hartlepool.

I had never heard of Q790, so I had a look on the internet and found that Q790 is in fact the hull which was formerly the French aircraft carrier Clemenceau, apparently known affectionately as "le Clem". This warship entered service in 1961 and according to one of the French press releases sailed a million miles, spending 3125 days at sea, before being placed on the reserve list in 1998. I was prompted to divide 3125 by 36 and found that the ship had actually only spent 86 days a year at sea, and sailed an average of 320 miles a day. This may be par for the course for military vessels, and actually has nothing to do with this story.

After four years on the reserve list, during which one assumes the ship lay securely alongside in a French naval base, the French Ministry of Defence decommissioned it, renamed it Q790 and handed it over to the National Management of Domanial Interventions, whose job it was to arrange for its sale. The French government have made the point during the ensuring melee that they had taken this step as a better and more environmentally correct thing to do, than leaving it to rot alongside or sinking it in deep water. They claimed these were the preferred options for most countries when their warships have ceased to be of use.

There were some problems which were acknowledged at the  outset, principally the French revealed that the ship had on board 160 tons of asbestos. And a cruise through the internet using any of the appropriate key words reveals that it had been sent to Turkey to be dismantled, but it had been sent back, and negotiations with the Greeks had failed. In October 2003 the government signed a contract with a company called "Ship Decommissioning Industries Corporation" who would carry out the removal of the asbestos and then take the now waste free vessel to a suitable spot for the rest of the dismantling to take place. At this time the ship was in Toulon, and there the purchasers had a company called Prestosid remove as much as the asbestos as could be managed without actually starting to dismantle the ship itself. This task was carried out between October 2004 and September 2005.

It was then intended that the ship be towed from Toulon to the Alang breakers facility in India. There was still at least 40 tonnes of asbestos left in the ship, according to the French government, although this quantity was disputed by the environmental lobbies who said there might be 1000 tons still left. To this day, we remain uncertain of the precise quantity but one could probably calculate it, and it is remotely possible that the French government are correct. After all they probably have the plans. The Indian organisation who were to dismantle the ship had themselves hired an Indian company, Luthra, to carry on the asbestos removal when the ship reached the beach. Employees of this company were brought to France to learn how this task could be carried out safely.

Never-the-less, as the Clemenceau left Toulon and started on its voyage, the murmur of  dissent increased to a crescendo. Initially there was a possibility that it might not make it through the Suez Canal, but finally permission was granted and the tug and tow made its way into the Red Sea. But before it had got anywhere near the coast of the Indian subcontinent, permission to take it there was withdrawn, and probably with sinking hearts the French authorities made arrangements to release SDI from their obligations and for the ship to return to France, this time via the Cape of Good Hope. By now it would seem likely that the average distance travelled per day since decommissioning might exceed that achieved when it was in service. But once back in Brest in 2006 efforts were made to find another means of disposal. 

Meanwhile you might remember that back in November 2003 a number of American fleet replenishment tankers were towed to Hartlepool (I know! It seems like only the other day to me too), with the intent that the Able UK's TERRC (Teesside Environmental Reclamation and Recycling Centre) should dismantle them. This facility is based round the very large dock at Greythorp used in years gone by to construct offshore platform jackets. One presumes that the first to be built there was "Greythorp 1" the first of the platforms in the Forties Field. This was followed by the Thistle jacket, but again it is reasonable to assume that subsequent to the tow out in 1976 nothing further was done with this water filled hole in the ground until perceived by Able Uk as a potential earner.

What could it be used for? Well, it seems quite sensible to fill it up with ships to be dismantled and then pump the water out. This allows the whole ship to be safely dismantled. But there was a problem with the ghost ships. No-one wanted them to be dismantled in the UK, because of the claimed pollutants in them, and Able's requests for planning approval were as a consequence constantly rejected. Never-the-less three American replenishment tankers were towed into Hartlepool, tied up, and forgotten by most of us. But despite the setbacks the management of Able UK were not discouraged, and kept on applying for permission to do the work, and as a side issue got a contract to dismantle the modules from the North West Hutton platform which are still being lifted off the jacket and brought in on barges.

Finally sense seems to have prevailed, as people realised that these ships have to be taken to bits some-where, and the Alang breaker's beach leaves something to be desired as a facility. After umpteen applications and appeals it is finally possible for the American tankers, plus a couple of other British ships to be dismantled. Of course there are still the "Friends of Hartlepool" who for some reason don't think it is a good idea. You should see a picture of the Thistle jacket lying at Greythorp. It is similar to Highland 1, the second Forties platform which was built at Burnt Island on the Firth of Forth. I saw it there in 1974 and believe me it dominated the whole landscape like a vast dinosaur skeleton. This is how the Thistle jacket must have looked at Hartlepool. One assumes that no Friends of Hartlepool were old enough to see these leviathans, otherwise they would realise that a few grey ships on the seabed in Able's dock could hardly pose a problem.

Although Able's press releases don't say anything about it, negotiations must have been going on for a while with the French authorities regarding the "Clem", and finally in October 2008 the UK Environmental Agency gave permission for the Q790 to be towed to the UK to be dismantled. This permission was required because it is illegal to import toxic waste into the Uk without a licence. The ship arrived on 8th February and was tied up in the Greythorp Dock amidst a fanfare of publicity. The Company are starting to recruit the 200 workers who will form the expert workforce employed to dismantle all the ships, and are preparing to build the caisson to block the entrance, and carry out the dewatering of the enormous dock. All this seems to be eminently sensible, and surely credit is due to the Able management who have kept on trying, despite the most daunting opposition.

It is to be hoped that they are going to have a viewing platform so that those in favour of the project can have a look at it.

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