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Pontifications on Poison

Being some ramblings on events associated with poisonous plants.

Thursday 9th August 2012

I never thought I would write this: I want to go to Hartlepool.

For anyone reading this who is not familiar with that name, Hartlepool is a town on the north-east coast of England. It lies a few miles to the north of the mouth of the River Tees and its history has to do with shipping and heavy industry. Since the decline of most of its industrial base it has tried to redefine itself as a heritage based, tourist destination: mostly.

I say ‘mostly’ because Hartlepool has become more known around the world in recent years as a result of a clash between those seeking to regenerate it as a shipping-related industrial area and those who opposed this regeneration because it was based on offering ship-breaking services to the US government.

I’m writing about this because I came across a programme on BBC Radio4 called In Living Memory looking at the history of the efforts of a company called Able UK to take on a contract for the scrapping of redundant US navy ships.

Initial objections to the contract were led by Friends of the Earth (FoE) but when four ships arrived at Able UK’s Hartlepool facility, that group decided that the least environmentally damaging solution would be for those shipped to be scrapped there whilst resisting the arrival of a further nine ships under the original contract. In total, the US Navy had nearly 200 ships to be scrapped and Able UK saw the initial contract for thirteen ships as a proving exercise before bidding for further work.

Local objectors disagreed with FoE’s assessment and a group called ‘Friends of Hartlepool’ took over the lead role in objecting to everything Able UK sought to do. Long legal battles ensued before Able UK was granted the planning permission it needs to build a dry dock for the dismantling work and Hartlepool Council was ordered to pay Able UK’s substantial costs as well as its own legal costs.

The story is not over and, just recently, the council turned down a planning application related to a landfill site owned by a subsidiary of Able UK against the advice of its planning officers. It was going against its officers the last time that proved so expensive for the council and could do again.

The problem for the protestors is that they have put forward assertions about the environmental impact of the work that could not be supported by evidence. They claim that Hartlepool has the highest cancer rate in the UK whereas that dubious honour is held by Manchester and they have based much of their objection on what happened to workers exposed to asbestos in the days before the risks were understood and procedures for safely handling the substance were developed.

But, I’m not writing this to go over every detail of this issue. There were two things that interested me about the radio programme because they struck at my concerns about the misinformation people believe and how they cling to that misinformation.

The first was the quote from one of the protesters used to end the programme. This gentleman accepted that the protesters might be wrong about the environmental impact of Able UK’s activities but said that didn’t matter. If there were enough people who believed the project would cause harm it shouldn’t matter if they were wrong. That struck me as remarkable. I can understand people believing in wrong information if they haven’t understood the correct information (and I’m making a general point here not taking a position on Able UK’s activities) but it seems bizarre to claim that even if you were to accept that you were wrong you would still be right.

It was the second thing that struck me most. A woman, described as one of the leaders of the protesters was speaking about the landfill site that is used for disposing of the non-recyclable waste (including asbestos) from the ships. She said that there could be any number of poisons in the landfill. “It’s all in there. Any kind of poison. Could be ricin. Could be any mortal thing that we don’t know about. And we’re ingesting that and that’s why this town has the worst cancer rates in the country.”

And that’s why I want to go to Hartlepool. Though Google’s Streetview suggests the town uses mostly hanging baskets for its summer foliage and colour rather than ground level boxes or beds, I’d be very surprised if I couldn’t find Ricinus communis, castor oil plant, the source of ricin, growing in public as it does in most of the towns and cities in the UK.

It seems that this woman thinks ‘ricin’ is just a synonym for ‘poison’. She is, of course, completely wrong but, as her fellow protester said, that doesn’t matter. As long as enough people are wrong that makes them right.

I might want to visit Hartlepool but I certainly wouldn’t want to live there.

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