Monday, 9 February 2009

Toxic ships

There has been a great deal of press over the last few years about a company in Hartlepool called Able UK, who wanted to start breaking up ships. Over the last couple of weeks, the controversy has reared its head once more, with a French ship heading over for dismantling.

From the BBC Website:
A former French aircraft carrier - rejected by India and Egypt as being too toxic to be broken up - has arrived at its final resting place in Teesside. The Clemenceau is to be dismantled and recycled at Graythorp, Hartlepool.
and The Times:
A ship regarded as too dirty to be broken up in India has docked in Hartlepool, where it will be dismantled and its toxic contents sent for burial.
These are interesting perspectives on an important environmental story. Yet the story is more complex than these snippets make it seem. Firstly, how 'toxic' are the ships? Secondly, even if they were rejected by India and others for dismantling, does that mean that they cannot be safely dismantled in Britain? After all, the removal of materials such as asbestos is a large and successful industry in Britain.

For years Able UK have been attempting to get permission to scrap a number of ex-US military ships, part of the US strategic reserve. These are old ships, stored in case they were needed in the future. As times goes on, newer retired ships replace them, and the old mothballed fleet needs scrapping. The US Government insisted that this be done in an environmentally friendly way, and Able UK won the contract. Greenpeace supported the move, Friends of the Earth resisted it, and cost Able UK a fortune contesting them in court.

Now Able UK has won the contract to break up the massive French aircraft carrier. This time, both Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth both support the move. I welcome this as being far-sighted, realistic environment activism. But wait a minute; as mentioned, when Able UK wanted to break up some American warships over five years ago, the FoE complained (see also here). In the latter link, note the phrase:
Between them the structures of the two ships contain more than 800 tonnes of American toxic waste - with more than 500 tonnes of asbestos and 300 tonnes of solid PCBs set to be buried locally in Hartlepool - on UK soil.
The word 'American' is notable here. This gives the impression that they are not complaining about waste from the French ship, as it is 'European' toxic waste.

A spokesman of the 'Friends of Hartlepool' group called it “a floating timebomb” (from the Times). This has to be one of the exaggerations that gives so many groups bad press. In an attempt to get press attention, they have raised their rhetoric to a massive degree. In what way can it be called a timebomb? What is their justification for such a stupid, dramatic phrase? Now, it could be that they are concerned about 'dumped' materials leaching out of the ground over time. If so, this is hardly a timebomb; more of a timeleach.

As an example of the utter rubbish that environmental groups can come up with, see the following link on - 'Asbestos ship of death'. Oh my God! It's a ship of death! We're all going to die!

So what are the alternatives? There are several that I can think of. The first, and most horrific, is for the ships to be sent to India or Bangladesh ( for disposal. The Greenpeace website has a good article on a relatively good Chinese outfit. Only the truly brain-dead will believe that grounding ships at high-tide and having barefoot men cutting them up is an improvement over what Able is suggesting.

I am all for environmental agencies trying to ensure that things are done properly. However, they also have to realise that jobs need doing. If that is the case, then they need to work with, not against, people and organisations to ensure that it is done in the best reasonable way. The situation with Able UK is not perfect, but it is better than the alternatives.

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