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The Daily Telegraph: Attention old shipping: more storms ahead


(Filed: 29/03/2004)


The good ship Olwen, a Royal Fleet Auxiliary vessel which did sterling service supporting Operation Grapple off the Bosnian coast during the wars there, is no more. After getting to grips with Grapple, it was grappling irons at Alang, a beach in India where she was broken up using little more than sledgehammers and child labour to deal with her asbestos, toxic chemicals (PCBs) and Lord knows what else. 


Ah, well. India is far away, and if we all worried about the working conditions in the Third World, we'd be too depressed to get out of bed, so it's fortunate that we have some fine pressure groups to worry on our behalf. These groups need to tweak our consciences to produce the donations to avoid suffering the fate of the Olwen themselves, and nothing brings in the dosh like a good stunt.


Thus it was last November that Friends of the Earth alighted on the terrific story of the "toxic ghost fleet", a flotilla of decommissioned US navy rust-buckets stealthily making their way across the Atlantic to their destination on England's north-east coast. This was a guaranteed shocker, and the press duly obliged.


The ships, stuffed with asbestos and PCBs, made great pictures. The BBC hired a plane for one of those ridiculous "going live" stunts. The national news showed dramatic shots of these floating environmental timebombs creeping ever closer to our green and pleasant land.


The invasion of the polluters had to be stopped, and, by golly, the Friends were going to do it. The ships were en route to Able UK, a breaker's yard in Hartlepool run by one Peter Stephenson, which had become something of a specialist in dealing with awkward cases, including redundant oil rigs from the North Sea. Unlike the child labourers on Alang beach, Able tries to treat the toxic chemicals with the care that the regulations demand and, boy, do they demand.


Everyone, it seems, gets a say on this subject, from the obvious suspects like Hartlepool Borough Council (which must give the original planning permissions) to English Nature, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, the Marine Conservation Society and the Environment Agency. When the Friends started stirring things up, it was inevitable that some box would be found unticked and, sure enough, the Environment Agency managed to find it.


In the High Court the Friends found a judge who decided that the "marine structures" that Able was allowed to break up did not mean ships, contrary to what the Hartlepool planners had indicated back in 1986. Since the Oxford English Dictionary defines "maritime" as meaning "of shipping, nautical", Mr Stephenson was understandably surprised by the decision. His yard had already dismantled three ships, in addition to about 50 oil rigs since 1986. As a result, the "toxic ghost ships" which have made it to Hartlepool (part of the fleet never left the US) are sitting there still, quietly rusting away, rather like Able itself, which is paying over 1 million a month to stop them falling apart completely.


So far, this is an all-too-typical story of the real cost of the do-gooders with which Britain is so richly endowed, but what makes it more interesting is the surprising twist it took last week. The Friends' great rivals, Greenpeace, in conjunction with the local MP, Peter Mandelson, and the GMB union, called for more toxicity in Hartlepool, rather than less.


They didn't quite put it like that, of course, but they see the opportunity to establish a world-leading specialist business, creating skilled jobs to deal with these nasty vessels under proper conditions. There will be plenty of them; 1,300 single-hulled oil tankers alone will be redundant after new rules come into force in 2007.


Well, we should rejoice at a sinner that repenteth. Remember the Brent Spar? Greenpeace would rather you didn't. It pulled a similar stunt by boarding this redundant oil platform en route round Scotland to be sunk in deeper water in the north Atlantic. The television news boys loved the story, especially when Shell tried to drive the warriors off with fire hoses. The platform, we were told, was awash with horrid chemicals which would pollute vast areas of the pristine ocean. Shell crumbled before the onslaught, and the Brent Spar was taken off to a Norwegian fjord. It was only later that Greenpeace quietly admitted that its estimates of the contents were wildly exaggerated. What pollutants it did contain would disappear naturally within weeks at the most - as the Braer demonstrated when it broke up in a gale with a cargo of crude oil off the Orkneys. By the time the wind died down, there was barely a trace of the oil to be found.


There is still no convincing argument for breaking up old oil platforms on land. Shell was on the right track with the Brent Spar, and the finest solution to the scores of North Sea structures nearing the end of their lives would be to tow them into the area of the north Atlantic where fishing rights are disputed between Iceland, Greenland and the European Union.


There, they can be sunk in a pre-determined pattern and cut off below the waterline to avoid being a hazard to shipping. The 20-mile nets that are destroying the world's fish stocks would be unable to operate near them, thus providing a sanctuary and some hope of regeneration.


It would mean less work for Mr Stephenson and Able UK, but as we have seen, there are hundreds of ships which should be heading his way. So is he pleased to have such surprising allies? Well, up to a point. He is so fed up with struggling through the bureaucracy that he's considering moving some of his business abroad. Now where have we heard that before?

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