Socialist Worker

As toxic timebomb heads for Teesside

The decision to scrap 13 toxic US ships in Hartlepool has created uproar in the town. Matthew Cookson went to the north east town to meet some campaigners

Issue No. 1874

HARTLEPOOL IS a town in revolt. Hundreds of ordinary people are up in arms about the toxic ships. And they are furious with a system that wants to turn their town into a dumping ground for polluted waste. Geoff Lilley, a former Labour councillor and bus driver, told Socialist Worker, 'After it got out that the ships were coming here there was a near revolution by the public.' He continues, 'People on the protests are ordinary grandmothers and mothers. They have never done anything like this before.'

'The entire town is saying it doesn't want these ships. A survey in the local paper, the Hartlepool Mail, found that 91 percent were against the ships,' says Neil Gregan. 'One of the signs coming into Hartlepool is missing the L, so it reads 'Hartlepoo', which is true because we're getting shit on.'

The 13 ships, dubbed the 'ghost fleet', are heavily polluted old US Navy hulks. They are being dragged across the Atlantic by other boats, sparking fears that they could break up at sea and unleash their poison into the ocean.

'The people of Hartlepool are up in arms-they want to do something. Four ships are already on their way. We have to show we have a voice,' says Michelle Kennedy. 'We don't want those ships. We don't want those kinds of jobs. They will cost too much to people's lives.'

The ships are heading for Able UK's Graythorp yard, right beside Hartlepool's nuclear power station, in an area already full of chemical factories. The ships are contaminated with over 1,000 tonnes of asbestos, so a ban on importing the stuff had to be specially lifted. It will be dumped in a landfill site right next to the residential area of Seaton Carew.

'Why are they bringing these ships with asbestos from the US?' Michelle Kennedy demands. 'We already have 500 tonnes of asbestos in the landfill at Seaton. The asbestos is put into two bags and dumped into a landfill site and covered up. Does this stuff decompose? What does heat from the sun, water and moisture do if the bags break? And it's not just us-if anything goes wrong here it will pollute the whole coast. On the protest I organised I took my banner which said, 'Short term jobs, Short Term Lives, Say No, Toxic Kills'.'

'We have better things to do than break up shitty ships,' ex Labour councillor Mike Turner told the local paper. 'We'll be looked on as George Bush's toilet.'

People are up in arms against the whole political establishment that has trampled on their wishes by bringing the ships to Hartlepool. Arch Blairite Peter Mandelson, Hartlepool's MP, fully backs the plan to scrap the ships in the town. The leader of the Labour councillors, Moss Boddy, was one of the key people behind Hartlepool council's decision to back Able UK's bid for the ships.

Councillor Mike Turner resigned from the Labour Party on Thursday of last week in disgust at Labour's support for the toxic ships. Geoff Lilley told Socialist Worker, 'Mandelson is a carpetbagger who has used this town for his own political ends. The whole system is a joke. The only people who have done anything in Hartlepool are pressure groups. The people who are supposed to represent you have been notable by their silence. It has been the same over the local hospital. It looks like we could lose accident and emergency and we have already lost elements of cancer care. Groups like the Socialist Alliance have been stirring things up in the save the hospital campaign. And Friends of the Earth and the Impact environmental group started to campaign over the toxic ships.'

There are seven independent councillors in Hartlepool, including an independent mayor. But the mayor has done nothing to help the protesters. Michelle Kennedy says, 'The mayor said he couldn't do anything about it. But he can. They started the process-surely they can stop it.' 'The scariest thing for me is, who do people vote for now?' says Geoff Lilley. 'Hartlepool Labour councillors are the biggest comedown. Hartlepool council has a cabinet system. The mayor can choose councillors to be in his cabinet. The cabinet, in an informal meeting, made the decision to support the toxic ships when he was on holiday. Many councillors didn't even hear of it until it was in the paper. There is no debate any more and no general democracy. Tony Blair told councillors to listen to the people at his party conference. In Hartlepool people have voiced their opinion. They have said no to the ghost fleet, keep our hospital as it is. Are councillors going to do the bidding of their political masters like Blair, or are they going to listen to the people? Politics for me should be bottom up. It is clear from this debacle that it is top down. I am still a member of the Labour Party. But I'm just hanging on by my fingertips. I feel so uncomfortable with issues like Iraq, foundation hospitals, tuition fees. I feel betrayed. In Hartlepool they sold the council housing stock for £500 a property. It was the same people who in 1965 were laying the first foundations of the same houses. Do they never lay down at night and ask themselves what's it all about?' 'Where are Peter Mandelson and the councillors?' says Michelle Kennedy. 'I even phoned Tony Blair to ask, 'Where are you?''

Campaigners are fuming at the way people's desperation for decent jobs is being exploited by those backing the deal to scrap the ships. 'This is the revolt of the indigenous people of Teesside,' says local campaigner Neil Marley.

'My fear is that most of the people who get jobs will drive in, get their £30,000 and then fuck off. The only jobs for local people will be with subcontractors. That means low pay-you're sacked if the boss doesn't like you. It'll be cash in hand-it usually is round here. All the jobs that have been created by tourism and regeneration are threatened if one of those ships sinks. No one is going to want to come to Hartlepool if the marina is full of dead fish.'

Geoff Lilley says, 'Peter Mandelson says it's a great thing that these ships are coming here. The 200 jobs are rubbish. They will be semi-skilled and not decent. People aren't daft. We still build ships round here and we know a good ship when we see one. We just don't want this rubbish.'

US wants to dump its crap on poorer countries

UNTIL 1994 US ships were sent to breakers in countries like India, Bangladesh and China to be decommissioned. Then US president Bill Clinton imposed a moratorium on the practice. George W Bush revoked this late last year.

The US Marine Administration (MARAD) said of the ghost fleet, 'These vessels, many of which are 50 years in age, pose a significant environmental threat due to the presence of hazardous substances such as asbestos, and solid and liquid polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs). There have been oil spills and some of the deteriorated ships are in danger of sinking.'

'Bush is about as welcome as his bloody toxins'

THERE ARE rumours that George Bush is planning to go to Sedgefield, Tony Blair's constituency, when he comes to Britain for his state visit next month. Campaigners are furious that the warmonger and polluter in chief might be visiting their area.

'The papers are saying that George Bush is planning to come and stay at Trimdon at Tony Blair's house,' says Michelle Kennedy. 'If he does come here we'll all be saying, 'Why doesn't he stay on one of the ships? He can work on that.' 'He can take two bags of asbestos home with him.'

'If Bush does come to Sedgefield we'll go along and tell him, Peter Mandelson, the Health and Safety Executive, the environmental agency and everyone in favour, that the people of Hartlepool don't want the ships here,' says Geoff Lilley. He'll get a warm welcome here. It is a great shame that Tony Blair has anything to do with an individual like George Bush. Bush and the US should deal with their own rubbish.'

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Sat 25 Oct 2003, 00:00 BST
Issue No. 1874
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