Able UK has moved a step closer to recycling the ghost ships it holds in Teesside but the process that allowed them to get there has been heavily criticised.
The Environment Agency (EA) last week published a review of the transfer of the four former US navy vessels from Virginia to Hartlepool.
It was positive about Able completing its job but called for a fundamental rethink of how the UK deals with scrapping ships.
EA chief executive Barbara Young said: There is a pressing need for a clear policy to ensure the environmentally sound dismantling of decommissioned ships.
Our first concern is for the environment and human health, and to ensure that ships are recovered in properly regulated facilities, but it is also clear that public debate is needed to establish how the UK handles the dismantling of ships here and abroad.
Able has gone past the 180-day deadline it had to complete work on the ships under European law yet still does not have the necessary licences to start recycling them.
But the EAs review leaves the door open for the firm by concluding that there is no need to take action against it as tests showed the ships were being held safely.
EA area manager Craig McGarvey said: The current position is that the ships are stored safely and Able is working with the various authorities to apply for permission to dismantle the ships.
In light of this we have concluded that it would not be sensible to take enforcement action while Able is attempting to rectify the situation. If circumstances change we will review our enforcement position.
But while the report leaves Able free to recycle the ships, it also called for an overhaul of the way such decisions are made in future.
The EA believes there are also important lessons to be learnt from the experience of dealing with the US naval ships, said a spokesman.
The report concluded:
l The responsibility for getting all the relevant permissions must remain with the applicant. However, the EA would improve its guidance to applicants and actively support collective discussions between the applicant and other regulators before the application is submitted. It would emphasise to applicants that permissions granted by the EA do not confirm the existence of all relevant permissions from other regulators.
l The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, English Nature and the EA should ensure more effective co-ordination of environmental impact assessments under the Habitats regulations.
l The EA needs to enhance its ability to recognise novel and potentially contentious issues and thus to be able communicate publicly the true nature of environmental risks and associated regulatory controls in a timely fashion.
l The Government position on the issues raised by this incident needs to be clarified to establish:
l A national policy on ship recycling including imports and exports and whether minimum environmental standards should be applied to all facilities involved in recovering UK flagged vessels.
l If there is support for a UK ship recycling business sector.
l Whether the Government should promote an international agreement on ship scrapping and recovery facilities.
Friends of the Earth welcomed the report. Campaigns director Mike Childs said: We are pleased that the EA has learnt important lessons from the ghost ships saga.
Friends of the Earth will continue to do all it can to ensure that the internationally important wildlife site in the Tees Estuary is fully protected.
Proper environmental investigations are now being carried out into the environmental risk posed by developing a ship-scrapping facility and local people will be fully consulted.
While these issues are both crucial, Friends of the Earth maintains that rich countries should deal with their own waste, not export it. u