- The Washington Times - Monday, October 6, 2003

NEWPORT NEWS, Va. — Two World War II-era ships that belong to the James River “Ghost Fleet” were towed to sea yesterday to begin a 4,255-mile journey to England to be dismantled.

Several tugs pushed and pulled the auxiliary oil tankers Canisteo and the Caloosahatchee away from the nearly 100 mothballed, rusting ships that are anchored off Fort Eustis as part of the Navy’s Reserve Fleet.

The fleet has been an environmental concern in Virginia for years, and the trans-Atlantic journey has been opposed by environmentalists who fear the 58-year-old ships, which contain oil, could break up in rough seas.

“I frankly don’t care if the ships are scrapped internationally or domestically,” Rep. Jo Ann Davis, whose district includes Newport News, said as the 644-foot-long ships began leaving. “We just want them out of our back yard on the James River.”

Mrs. Davis, who has worked to secure money to dispose of the ships, said this is the beginning of a consistent pattern of ship removal from the James.

Friends of the Earth, a British environmental group, said yesterday it has warned the British government it intends to issue a legal challenge over a decision allowing the Ghost Fleet ships to come to England.

The group said it was unlawful for the British government to modify a waste-management license to dismantle and dispose of the ships without carrying out an adequate environmental assessment. The group intends to seek a judicial review of the decision.

“These toxic ships should be disposed of in the U.S., and not sent on a hazardous cross-Atlantic voyage to be dumped,” Tony Juniper, the group’s director, said in a statement.

Until the Canisteo and the Caloosahatchee reached the Atlantic, they were to be trailed by two small boats outfitted to clean up a spill.

“We’re not expecting any problems, but it’s best to be prepared,” said Robert Johnson, a spokesman for the U.S. Department of Transportation, which oversees the U.S. Maritime Administration, caretaker of the fleet.

Once the ships get to the Atlantic, one large ocean-going tug will tow the ships, one behind the other, to the AbleUK facility in the Teesside area of northeastern England. The entire trip is expected to last about 21 days, with the ships moving at 7 mph.

“We think we’ve done everything possible to ensure the success of this operation,” said Mr. Johnson, noting that the U.S. and British coast guards, as well as insurers, had weighed in on the project and given clearances.

Two other Ghost Fleet ships deemed seaworthy are expected to leave Virginia waters later this week for the scrap yard. All four ships are part of a Congress-authorized pilot project directing them to be disposed of in an environmentally sound manner.

Last week, a federal judge blocked the government from moving nine of 13 ships slated to be taken to England, saying the Maritime Administration had not done environmental studies as required by law. The judge has scheduled another hearing Oct. 20.

Mr. Johnson said the administration will work to address the issues raised in the lawsuit and expects to tow the remaining nine ships to England next spring or summer. The ships cannot be towed in the winter because the Atlantic Ocean is too rough.

More than 70 ships in the Ghost Fleet are considered obsolete and in need of disposal. Twenty-three ships have either been removed or are scheduled for removal from the James River this year.

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