FOR those critics who disbelieve most things they read in the newspapers, recent weeks have given them lots of ammunition.

Journals as distinguished as The Guardian and The Observer have published stories that border on fantasy. The topic? The so-called ghost fleet - the former US navy ships in the James River in Virginia.

Thirteen of the hundred or so decommissioned vessels are coming to Hartlepool to be taken apart in the dismantling yard of Able UK. End of story. But not for The Observer. Its take is that these rusting "toxic floating dumps" are on their way thanks to a "secret deal". The ships contain "the most poisonous chemicals known to man" and must negotiate "ferocious Atlantic storms" to get to Hartlepool. Teesside residents are "stunned" at the ships' imminent arrival. And so on. Councillor Bob Pendlebury, of Durham County Council, put the willies up the North-East last week by saying the ships could break open and spill oil all down the recently cleaned up coastline. It is apparently a potentially "toxic armada" (Councillor Pendlebury must take The Observer).

Not surprisingly, the reporting has exasperated the management at Able UK.

Quite reasonably, they point out that the company has more than 30 years' experience in decommissioning petrochemical plants, power stations and oil rigs. All of which contain elements as dangerous, if not more so, than those found in the "ghost fleet". It would not risk its reputation - which includes being named company of the year by the Northern Offshore Federation - on 13 rusting hulks that could burst open at any moment. Some of the ships may indeed be rusty, that's a natural process after sitting in the baking Virginia sunshine but - and I've seen the pictures - the interiors look pretty much as they would when in service.

The clinching argument though is that bringing the ships here will see 200 jobs coming in their wake. And if Able does this job right, then many more could follow - there are precious contracts up for grabs from our own Navy for decommissioning ships.

To turn away the chance to create jobs on Teesside is to deny its industrial heritage. For heaven's sake, making stinky chemicals, building things - rigs, ships, whatever - and then ripping them apart at the end of their useful life is what Teesside's all about. Life in the country's grittiest area would be just fine if everyone could work in a call centre or be a computer programmer. As that's never going to happen, bring on the toxic armada.

Ian Reeve is Business Correspondent, BBC TV North East and Cumbria.

lan Reeve is Business Correspondent, BBC TV North East & Cumbria.

Published: 23/09/2003