A BID to scrap a toxic fleet of former US warships in the North-East faced fresh delay last night.

The Environment Agency confirmed it was asking for more time to consider a waste licence application from Able UK in Hartlepool .

Able wants to increase the waste tonnage that it can process at its Graythorp site from 25,000 tonnes to 75,000 tonnes a year.

It also wants to change the terms of its licence to specifically refer to ships and vessels, rather than marine structures and scrap metal.

Environmentalists say that unless an appropriate licence is granted the fleet cannot be scrapped in the UK.

Friends of the Earth lawyer Phil Michaels said: "If these ships arrive in the UK before this waste modification licence has been granted there is a risk that they could be asked to go back to the US."

A spokeswoman for the Environment Agency said they had asked for Able to agree to a 28-day extension in order to further consider the application and its environmental effect.

The delay is another blow to the project. Able UK faces punitive fines if the ships are not removed from the James River, in Virginia, by November 30.

Able has suffered a number of setbacks since sealing an £11m contract to dismantle the ageing US Navy ships, which are said to contain lead, mercury and potentially cancer-causing PCBs.

It withdrew a planning application to build a dry dock at Graythorp just hours before Hartlepool Council was to decide whether an environmental impact assessment was necessary. Hurricane Isabel then ruined plans to tow the first of the fleet across the Atlantic.

Environmental groups have also filed a lawsuit in the US Federal Court, due to be heard tomorrow, in an effort to stop the first two vessels leaving.

Mr Michaels said: "This dangerous and unnecessary project still does not have the regulatory approvals needed for it to proceed. The US should deal with its own toxic mess, rather than trying to export it abroad."

Able UK was unavailable for comment last night.