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The Ghost Ships of Hartlepool

In Hartlepool a city of just under 100,000 on the eastern shore of England, a mysterious row of ships are docked in the town’s main shipyard. They are former United States Naval vessels that were sent there to be dimsantled in 2003. However 3 years and millions of dollars later they are still waiting to hear their fate.

In 2003 industrial contractor Able UK brokered an $11 million deal to bring 13 US Navy ships to the small town to be dismantled. The deal however sparked outrage and criticism at the amount of toxic materials on the ships and the environmental and communal damage they could inflict.

The plan has drawn local and national officials into an escalating war over what to do with the fleet. Hartlepool council members unanimously rejected the proposal angering business leaders as well as some local officials who argue the influx of cash and the rigorous safety standards compared to those of the infamous Alang Shipyard in India will benefit the community.

What worries residents are the toxins on board the ships. They Include:

  • 3,540 tons of oil
  • 2,800 tons of oil contaminated water
  • 1,400 tons of asbestos
  • High concentrations of mercury, pcbs, and other hazardous materials

Asbestos is especially dangerous when a ship is being dismantled. The disturbed fibers become airborne and can be inhaled by workers or worse, members of the community. When looking at unprotected workers in India’s Alang shipyard, the respiratory death and illness rates are astronomical.

Even with protection the fibers can settle on clothing and be re-released at home. Asbestos can lead to deadly diseases including mesothelioma and asbestosis.

Other small English ports have been targeted to begin dismantling Royal Navy vessels and the reactions have been the same. In Newcastle-on-Tyne some vessels would be dismantled directly adjacent to residential areas.

As technology evolved, once top of the line vessels were put into “Don’t want/Don’t need” situations and 3rd world countries who need the influx of capital have been accepting these hazardous ships at alarming rates.

Recently though outcries over worker safety have led to a number of diplomatic gaffes including the recent controversy over the French aircraft carrier Le Clemenceau which was set to be dismantled in India but following dramatic environmentalist protests it was rejected .

Hartlepool, Newcastle-on-Tyne, and the ghost ships remain in an uncertain limbo as governments and corporations fight in court. As the ships sit in the harbor they risk contaminating the water around them but if they aren’t welcome here who else will accept them?