A fleet of aging U.S. warships is headed for the small port town of Hartlepool, England to be dismantled. Residents there are concerned these ships may leak oil, PCBs, asbestos and other wastes into their harbor if their planned dismantling goes ahead. Host Bruce Gellerman talks with Geoff Lilly, a Hartlepool native, about how the ghost ships could change his community.
GELLERMAN: Unlike old soldiers, old warships don’t just fade away. They have to be dismantled. Recently, four decommissioned U.S. Navy ships set sail from Virginia to England on what Pentagon officials had hoped would be their final voyage. The ships were supposed to be scrapped at the English port of Hartlepool. But environmental groups there say the old ships pose a threat to the town and the courts have put the plan on hold.
Geoff Lilly joins me from Hartlepool. He’s a life-long resident, retired local councilor and bus driver. Hello Mr. Lilly.
GELLERMAN: I understand that you were in Hartlepool Harbor for the first of two of thirteen U.S. ships that was supposed to be dismantled there.
LILLY: Well, hopefully the first of four that will have come to Hartlepool and be returned, but yes, I was on the end of the pier. And I gave them, along with a number of other people, a very loud reception. We want them to go back.
GELLERMAN: Well, why do you want them going back?
LILLY: Well, first of all, you’ve got to understand where Hartlepool’s coming from. Thirty years ago we were a heavily industrialized town, and we’ve had the legacy of heavy industry over the years. Over the last five, ten, 15 years we’ve seen over 300 million pounds spent on the renaissance of our town, and we feel as if that’s something we should be leaving behind, the heavy industrial side of things. But also, the toxic waste on these ships will be buried in a toxic waste pit called St. Meadows which is less than a kilometer away from some very nice housing. That’s not on from where we’re coming from. And also, you know, America under Bill Clinton signed certain protocols to ensure that toxic waste such as this wasn’t exported, and we’re very concerned that precedents are being set in the making of these exemptions to the rule.
GELLERMAN: But I understand that government officials and officials from the company that’s going to do the dismantling say that the ships pose no environmental problem.
LILLY: Well, it’s interesting that you should say that, Bruce, because I’ve just been reading some reports to your Senate in relation to the state of the ships. And in America you seem to be saying that these ships are a threat to the estuarial habitat of the James River, which is a similar habitat to the one they’re being put in now. So, if they’re a risk to the environment in America, they’re just as great a risk to the environment in Hartlepool.
GELLERMAN: Now, the James River is the place in Virginia where the ships came from.
LILLY: That’s correct. You know, if these ships were coming the other way across the pond, Senators like John Davies, who’s been very vocal in being glad to see the back of them, would be, well, I’d imagine that they’d be declaring war.
GELLERMAN: You mean if they were coming to James River instead of the other way around?
LILLY: Oh, yeah. You know, if the boot was on the other foot, as they say. ..
GELLERMAN: Well, President Bush crossed the pond this week. He was in Britain. If you had the opportunity, what would you say to him?
LILLY: Oh, I would ask him to take his ships home with him.
GELLERMAN: Mr. Lilly, earlier in the interview I heard a dog. Is that an English Yorkshire terrier?
LILLY: No, I’ve got three dogs. I’ve got two black Scottish terriers, the same as George W., and I’ve got a miniature dachshund called Henry. His proper name’s Heinrich, but we prefer Henry [LAUGHTER].
GELLERMAN: Well, you have something in common with George Bush, then.
LILLY: Only one thing, really.
GELLERMAN: Mr. Lilly, it was a real pleasure.
LILLY: And a pleasure talking to you. God bless you, Bruce.
GELLERMAN: Take care.
GELLERMAN: Geoff Lilly is a life-long resident of the port city of Hartlepool, England. You’re listening to NPR’s Living on Earth.
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