'Ghost Ships' Haunt a Fading Port

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Owen Humphreys / PA

A vessel in a fleet of controversial former US Navy 'ghost ships' arrives at a Hartlepool breakers' yard.

As a prosperous 19th-century port in the northeast of England, Hartlepool built the ships that made the British Empire. But like the empire itself, Hartlepool has since withered, and over the past century it has welcomed any work that could help replace the dockyard's disappearing jobs. Steel refineries, petrochemical plants, scrap yards, landfills, an incinerator and a nuclear power plant border the town of nearly 90,000. But in 2003, when four rusting U.S. Navy vessels arrived at a local dock to be scrapped, for many locals it was the last straw. "We are not the world's dustbin," read one of the placards borne by a horde of angry protesters who greeted the ships. And in the four years since, the town has been locked in an emotional battle over four husks that embody the decay of its own once-mighty industry.

Hartlepool's industrial heyday is long passed, but residents may be haunted by its consequences. A local health institute recently sponsored a conference to study the "invisible killers" in Hartlepool — toxins from long-gone plants that have helped make cancer the most prevalent killer in the city with the shortest life expectancy in England.

Locals call the U.S. vessels moored on the edge of the harbor — three support tankers and a scouting boat — "the ghost ships." Once part of the James River Reserve Fleet standing ready to respond to a national emergency, the 12,000-ton behemoths were decommissioned in the 1980s and 1990s and tugged across the Atlantic after a Hartlepool ship-breaking firm, Able UK, won the contract to recycle their steel, promising to create 1,500 jobs.

Opponents of the scheme said Able UK's plan to dredge a nearby estuary for a series of wind turbines — an addendum to the original ship-breaking application — would unearth sediment containing dangerous heavy metals such as cadmium and mercury, and toxic chemicals like dioxin. They also question Able UK's plans to bury asbestos and other toxins from the ships at the nearby Seaton Meadows landfill.

"Our soil has been poisoned and our air has been contaminated," says Peter Tweddle, the retired oil industry safety officer coordinating the local campaign to send the ghost ships back to America. "We are dying from horrible diseases. Yes, we need jobs. But at a certain point we have to say, 'Enough.'"

Backed by Friends of the Earth, Tweddle and his supporters won a judicial appeal in 2003 to stop Able UK from dismantling the boats. The Hartlepool Council then rejected Able UK's second application in 2006. It was only after the British government passed an advisory in March this year encouraging ship recycling in the UK — citing concerns that the work would otherwise go to unregulated docks in the developing world — that the council relented. In late October, it granted Able UK permission to recycle the ships, but the delay has cost the firm a contract for a further nine James River Fleet vessels, and Friends of the Earth is considering appealing the decision on the remaining four.

Able UK's chairman Peter Stephenson, however, dismisses the campaigners as "scaremongerers," arguing that by undertaking recycling under Britain's strict regulations, the company deserves the environmentalist mantle. "What the [campaigners] have done has actually been detrimental to the environment. For four years, they have stopped us recycling ships," he says.

Tweddle and his allies are currently focused on saving an untouched stretch of estuary near Able UK's yard that is a refuge for seals and other wildlife. Some evenings, Tweddle likes to drive the short distance from his house to the edge of the lagoon, where, in the twilight, flames burst from refinery chimneys like apparitions.

After dark, he sometimes drives a few miles into the center of Hartlepool for dinner, where a marina built by the council is bolstered by two new call centers and a tourist attraction. The pride of the town is now HMS Trincomalee, a restored 1817 warship, just like the ones Hartlepool was once famous for building, another ghost ship in a town haunted by them.