Christopher Furlong  /  Getty Images
Two rusting shells of retired U.S. Navy vessels sit and wait at the Able U.K. shipyard in Hartlepool, England.
updated 10/12/2006 3:29:00 PM ET 2006-10-12T19:29:00

The local council of a former British shipbuilding town on Thursday refused an application to dismantle a flotilla of aging U.S. Navy ships, saying it did not want to become "a toxic waste dumping ground."

Environmentalists have argued that the four ships brought to Britain for scrapping three years ago carried toxic materials and would cause pollution if they were dismantled.

Able U.K., which was hired to scrap the vessels, has disputed the environmental risk and said that dismantling the ships would bring 200 new jobs to Hartlepool, a depressed former shipbuilding town at the mouth of the River Tees in northeast England.

It had applied to for permission to scrap the vessels and to extend its yard on the outskirts of Hartlepool, including the construction and operation of metal recycling facilities.

After a four-hour debate, the majority of councilors on Thursday rejected the applications, saying they were concerned about potential effects on the environment, tourism, people's health and wildlife habitats.

"We are not going to become the toxic waste dumping ground of Britain," councilor Edna Wright told the meeting.

Able U.K. company chairman Peter Stephenson said he would appeal the council's decision

"There has been a lot of scaremongering and ignorance of the facts," he said.

"I can see no technical reasons for the refusal, and I'm as confident as you can be that the appeal will be successful," he said.

There were public demonstrations when the ships — the 58-year-old tanker Caloosahatchee, the tanker Canisteo, the 38-year-old submarine tender Canopus and the 50-year-old cargo ship Compass Island — were brought to Hartlepool in 2003. All remain in Hartlepool docks.

Environmentalists say the ships contain tons of pollutants, including asbestos and PCBs, or polychlorinated biphenyls, which were used as electrical insulators but are suspected of causing cancer.

Able U.K. signed a contract to dismantle 13 ships from the U.S. Navy's reserve "ghost fleet" stored on the James River in Virginia, but nine of the ships were prohibited from moving because of a U.S. court order.

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