Thursday, November 13, 2003

Floating fears

‘US Toxic "ghost fleet" not wanted in the UK’, says Greenpeace, in response to the imminent arrival of two rusting, World War II-vintage US ships into the port of Hartlepool, in north-east England. The ships, the first two of 15, are due to be recycled by Able UK. However, a High Court ruling on 5 November 2003 will prevent any work being done on them for a month, and the UK Environment Agency has called on the US authorities to take the ships back. The ships contain hazardous chemicals including asbestos and PCBs, which campaigners like Surfers Against Sewage claim cause birth defects.

There appears to be nothing special about these ships apart from their age. Able UK say that they have regularly dismantled ships and platforms that have been much worse, including the Brent Spar platform. The quantities of hazardous substances on board are not remarkable either, and are unlikely to pose a health hazard in the form they are in on these ships. There is only sufficient fuel oil in the vessels to power the bilge pumps - they rely on tugs to move - so there is no chance of a big oil spillage. Any chemicals that can’t be reused would be buried in purpose-built landfill.

Why all the fuss? What the company proposes to do with the ships is exactly what campaigners want - safe disposal with as much recycling of materials as possible. Greenpeace even states that ‘the actual conditions under which the ships will be scrapped are far more advanced than those which are employed on the majority of ships.’

The main complaint appears to be about the danger of ships in the future breaking up and sinking in the Atlantic. But this in fact would seem to be the safest and simplest way of disposing of them. The benefits of deep-sea disposal were clearly demonstrated by the research done in relation to Brent Spar, but ignored in the emotive backlash against Shell’s plan to sink the platform.

There are thousands of other World War II ships already down there (2753 Allied ships and 783 U-boats were sunk in the ‘Battle of the Atlantic’), with no apparent harm resulting. Any leakages would be so heavily diluted by the volume of water as to be insignificant and natural events like deep-sea vents actually introduce far more heavy metals into the ocean than could ever arise from sunken ships and platforms. Serious accidents during the recycling process might be unlikely but why make workers handle toxic chemicals when there is no need? The impact on marine life would not necessarily be negative, either. Many of the weird and wonderful animals and organisms that live in the deep ocean would actually benefit from the presence of a rusting wreck.

The reaction to the ‘ghost ships’ is out of all proportion to any harm that they could cause, but they would not even by heading for these shores if a more rational approach to disposal hadn’t already been ruled out in the wake of Brent Spar.

US Toxic 'ghost fleet' not wanted in the UK, Greenpeace
The Brent Spar saga, Environmental Health Perspectives 103
The Battle of the Atlantic, Greenfield History


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