ABLE UK was mired in more controversy last night after it was revealed a former French naval aircraft carrier laden with asbestos could be scrapped in the North- East.

The firm is thought to have been offered a deal by the French Ministry of Defence to bring the Clemenceau to its Hartlepool breakers' yard.

The Northern Echo had previously revealed how the firm was bidding to bring a fifth so-called Ghost Ship to the region, containing 700 tonnes of asbestos contaminated material.

A rival bidder who spoke to the Echo said it was "incredible" that Able had seemingly secured the toxic vessel, despite not yet having all the necessary permissions from the Environment Agency to do the work at its Teesside Environmental Reclamation and Recycling Centre (TERRC).

Able has been competing against two French firms, one from Italy and one from Belgium for the Clemenceau, which caused an international storm two years ago after the authorities in France agreed it could set sail for India to be broken up.

Environmental campaigners across the world later held an international day of action, with Greenpeace protestors boarding the ship while it was off the coast of Egypt.

India's Supreme Court forced the French to take it back.

Meanwhile, Jean-Claude Gianino, the head of a French company previously given the job of carrying out preliminary work to remove asbestos from the ship, has said it could contain up to 1,000 tonnes of asbestos.

One of the European bidders for the Clemenceau, who did not want to be named but whose firm has been active in ship recycling for more than 80 years, said: "It is just incredible how a non-licensed yard gets a ship like that."

The other firms involved had been given two months to object to the deal, he said.

Polly Parks, a US-based industry expert on ship recycling, cited the soaring price of scrap metal as a reason why Able wanted to take the Clemenceau.

Two years ago, the estimated 25,000-tonnes of steel onboard was said to be worth about eight million euros (£6.3m), although the international price of scrap metal has shot up in the intervening years.

Ms Parks said she believed the French Government had offered Able the Clemenceau on condition that it received all the necessary permits to do the work from the UK authorities.

The Hartlepool firm currently has four ships which made up its original £11m contract with the US Maritime Administration (Marad) moored in Hartlepool, along with two British vessels.

But despite having eventually secured planning permission for its yard following years of wrangles, it is yet to secure a waste management licence from the Environment Agency in order to recycle and dispose of waste from redundant ships.

Ms Parks said: "They Able are on a learning curve, not actually having scrapped ships before.

"Given the way they managed the contract with Marad, I don't have that much confidence in the company." A spokeswoman for the Health and Safety Executive, which has been asked to provide an exemption so the asbestos can be imported into the UK, said it would not comment on the nature of the ship or where it was coming from.

Meanwhile, a spokesman for the Environment Agency, which could make a decision on Able's bid for a waste management licence by the end of the month, said: "This has no impact on that.

It is a commercial decision for the company."

Able also said it had no comment, beyond a previous statement it had issued, saying it was in negotiations to bring further work to its TERRC facility, but could not go into further details because of commercial confidentiality.