Ghost ship scare holds no water

spiked editor Mick Hume in The Times (London).

Mick Hume

Mick Hume
Columnist

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Protest groups are shouting: ‘Go home!’ at an American visitor they accuse of endangering lives and threatening the environment. No, not President Bush – that’s next week. This week’s target is the allegedly toxic fleet of US naval ships arriving in Britain.

The ‘ghost ships’ were sent here to be broken up, but the High Court vetoed that after Friends of the Earth branded them ‘toxic time bombs’. The Government, having first said that all was ship-shape with the recycling deal, now says that the ships can dock in Hartlepool only for the winter, and must then be sent back whence they came.

But the scaremongers’ arguments do not float my boat. This 60-year-old ghost fleet is no more toxic than any other old ships, factories, oil rigs or lorries, which are safely disposed of all the time. The American ships have no cargoes, chemical or otherwise, and hardly any oil. Their structures contain some asbestos, a standard component when they were built. The other hazardous chemicals – PCBs – that protesters point to are just part of the old electrical wiring or the flaking paint.

If it really was unsafe for British experts to take apart ships such as these, then we should surely ban the demolition of all empty tower blocks and warehouses at once. It should certainly be safer for them to be dealt with by experts on Teesside than by cheap labour on the beaches of the Indian sub-continent, where most ship-breaking takes place today.

Having persuaded the High Court to stop the work, environmentalists now complain that the ships should not even sit off Hartlepool docks, because they might break up in the sea during winter storms. But if there really were a problem, the safest thing would be to tow them out to the ocean and scuttle the lot. After all, the Second World War Battle of the Atlantic left more than 3,000 vessels at the bottom of the sea. Those ghost ships and their deadly cargoes have done no apparent harm to the environment. Why should a few more old hulks make any difference? The volume of water is so vast and contains so many ‘toxic substances’ that any leakage would be a drop in the ocean.

Remember the Brent Spar debacle? In the 1990s a campaign run by Greenpeace and supported by the German Government successfully pressed Shell to abandon plans to scrap the Brent Spar oil platform at sea. An independent investigation by the Norwegian risk management consultants, DNV, subsequently found Greenpeace’s factual case to be full of leaks, and a scientific report published by the National Environment Research Council later declared the environmental impact of Shell’s deep sea disposal plan to be ‘acceptably small’.

Now the same environmental groups using the same tactics have moved on to scaremongering about ‘toxic’ ships. As the scientific journal Nature pointed out at the time of Brent Spar, they can always play ‘the trump card of uncertainty’ to prey on public anxieties with their ‘but what if?’ scenarios. Far more worrying is the ease with which much of the media has swallowed their line and Government, in the shape of the Environment Agency, has given in to green protests.

The Environment Agency is so afraid of alienating what it imagines to be public opinion that, after receiving e-mails from eco-crusaders, it announced that ‘we would wish to assure Friends of the Earth’ that it shared its concerns and had told the US ships to go home. Thus was HMS Whitehall blown out of the water by a protestors’ plastic dinghy. Legend has it that when a monkey was washed ashore at Hartlepool during the Napoleonic wars, local people hanged it as a French spy. Fear and irrational loathing can make monkey-hangers of us all.

This article is republished from The Times (London)

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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