SHIP dismantling bosses are looking to the future after completing work on the controversial ghost ship fleet – more than seven years after the vessels first arrived.
Able UK is currently processing the scrap metal from the four American naval vessels and the 32,000-tonne former French aircraft carrier Clemenceau, which has also been decommissioned at the site on the outskirts of Hartlepool.
Able UK hit the headlines in November 2003 when it brought the first of the naval ships to the Teesside Environmental Reclamation and Recycling Centre (TERRC) to be broken up and recycled.
Dubbed the Ghost Ships, they led to protests from environmental groups over fears about asbestos-contaminated materials on board the vessels.
Work was delayed while Able UK gained permission from planning and health and safety chiefs.
Bosses have now confirmed that the ships have been broken up and they are currently working on a study with regeneration body One North East to look at the potential for building new dry dock gates in a bid to open up new "market opportunities".
Neil Etherington, Able UK's group development director, said: "Currently we are continuing the operation to ship out the materials arising from the vessels which have been decommissioned.
"The material is being shipped by sea and rail to a variety of users.
"In addition three offshore drilling rigs are currently berthed at the yard, with two undergoing maintenance work.
"We are continuing to examine a range of commercial opportunities for the facility and the feasibility study into the possibility of installing new permanent dock gates is also ongoing."
The dismantling of the Clemenceau, also known as the Q790, was the largest project of its kinds undertaken in Europe.
Able UK had been granted an extension to complete the work last year by the Environment Agency after originally being given a year to break down the vessel, which was towed into Hartlepool in February 2009.
The Environment Agency has confirmed that it will not be carrying out any enforcement action as a result of the delay.
A spokeswoman confirmed that it would not be taking any action against Able UK and said there were always valid reasons for the delays.
She said: "We have taken the decision because the Q790 has now been recovered and it has been done in a way that was environmentally sound.
"We are satisfied with the work and our priority was always that it was done properly."
Decommissioning work on three small UK ships was also completed before Christmas.
Bosses have previously said that the TERRC site, which houses one of the largest dry dock facilities in the world, has "significant potential" for a wide range of uses in the construction, repair and decommissioning of ships, oil and gas platforms.
Mr Etherington told the Mail that there are opportunities in the wind energy field, particularly in the construction of offshore turbine foundations and the potential use of the site as an installation base.