Three Hartlepool residents have won a High Court battle against proposals to break up a fleet of so-called United States Navy "ghost ships" on Teesside.
Four of the rusting US ships have travelled to UK shores
Neil Gregan, 25, Stephen Hall, 43, and Ben Marley, 18, brought the challenge against Teesside firm Able UK, which had planned to scrap the four rusting hulks at their Hartlepool yard.
Mr Justice Sullivan expressed "grave concern" that the ships had been brought all the way across the Atlantic - but he had not been shown planning permission, a waste management licence, or an environmental assessment for the proposed work.
He said he was not saying the documents did not exist, but called for an urgent investigation into the decision-making process which had led to him not being shown the documents.
After a day-long hearing, Mr Justice Sullivan said he proposed to allow the legal challenge made by the three Hartlepool residents.
David Wolfe, representing the trio, successfully argued that Hartlepool Borough Council made a legally flawed decision in September 2003 saying Able UK did not have to make a fresh planning application for the work on the ships.
The three Hartlepool residents, who live near Able UK's Teesside Environmental Reclamation and Recycling Centre (TERRC), situated in the former docks at Teesside, had said they recognised that the ships must be dismantled.
But they told the High Court the US should be dealing with its own waste and environmental problems and not "exposing local people and highly sensitive wildlife sites in the UK to environmental risks and potential pollution".
The ships travelled from the James River in Virginia
The ruling means, subject to any appeal, the company will have to reapply for a licence and submit to an environmental assessment before work can begin.
The company has signed a multi-million pound contract to scrap a total of 13 ships.
Mr Marley, a student from Hartlepool, said he was delighted with the result
"This decision is a step towards a cleaner, more prosperous Hartlepool.
"Today's judgement shows that the North East has an economic future which need not be based on environmentally harmful heavy industries."
Able UK's managing director, Peter Stephenson, said he intended to seek leave to appeal, when he had studied the detailed judgement which will be made available on Thursday.
He described the ruling as "very difficult to understand, and very frustrating".
He said in a statement that the legal wrangle had cost the company a £165m contract to build an offshore structure.
Oils and oily ballast water could cause damage to the marine environment.
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PCBs have been called "probable carcinogens" 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.