This article was written in 2003 - It remains an interesting bit of marine history.

Ghost Ships 

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 local council.

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. Does anyone remember the Brent Spar protest. 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 crude oil.

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.

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