Two contaminated former US navy ships will dock on Teesside before being returned to the US, the environment secretary has announced.
Two of the vessels are due to dock in the UK this week
Margaret Beckett said it was impractical for the so-called "ghost ships" to be sent back immediately.
She said the US authorities had been told the ships could not be dismantled in the UK because of "international rules and community law".
A decision is yet to be made about two other ships heading for the UK.
Mrs Beckett said the first two ships would be temporarily stored at Able UK's shipyard in Hartlepool - where they had been due to be dismantled - before going back across the Atlantic.
Environmental campaign group Friends of the Earth described the decision as a "complete stitch-up".
Its director Tony Juniper said: "There is no possible way this
can be the closest safe place to store these ships.
Agency made it clear that the ships should be returned to the United
States as soon as it was safe, so why are they now sending them half
way around the coast, to an area that is environmentally sensitive?"
But Hartlepool MP, Peter Mandelson, accused environment groups of "scaremongering" and said the ships posed no greater threat to the environment than any other vessels which needed to be broken up.
He told BBC Radio 4's Today programme: "I think it is right that
environmental organisations like Friends of the Earth are vigilant and highlight
concerns, but I have to say I have been shocked by their behaviour throughout
"They have clearly been driving a political agenda, not presenting the
"In the course of doing so, they have alarmed and whipped up public opinion
in Hartlepool and many fears amongst my constituents, and I think that is an
irresponsible thing to do."
He went on: "Friends of the Earth refer to these constantly as toxic ships. The ships in
this consignment do not come into any special category of toxicity.
"Like all ships, they contain some hazardous materials, but they are not
inherently dangerous and they are not carrying any toxic cargo."
The decision to let the ships dock at Hartlepool was announced on Friday after talks between Mrs Beckett and the US Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta.
Mrs Beckett said: "The immediate return to the United States of the first two ships, which are now approaching the Channel, would be impracticable, not least because of
concerns about the weather."
Able UK also welcomed the decision to allow the two ships to come to Hartlepool.
Managing director Peter Stephenson said: "Given all the circumstances, including safety and environmental considerations, it clearly makes common sense that the vessels should be taken into our facility where they can be safely stored until any outstanding legal issues can be resolved."
Oils and oily ballast water could cause damage to the marine environment.
Asbestos is a known carcinogen but is denser than water and non-soluble so would only pose a problem if blown on shore.
PCBs have been called a "probable carcinogen" and have been linked with neurological and developmental problems in humans.
Mercury, lead, chromium and cadmium are highly toxic metals which accumulate in the body.