They used to be called “ship-breakers,” but
that term is now outdated. United States ship recyclers today
are consummately green and must comply with a slew of strict
regulations, including those from the United States Environmental
Protection Agency (EPA).
Despite regulations, the business of ship
recycling is booming these days. “Listen, when you have steel
prices in the $300 a ton range and a large supply of scrap, I
would say it was good,” said Richard Jaross, CEO of ESCO Marine.
ESCO operates a 100 acre full service marine yard and recycling
operation in Brownsville, Texas. “Compared to the nightmare we
came out of at the end of 2009, scrap is doing well. It’s flowing,
people are buying goods, manufacturing seems to be up, the economic
dots are connecting and I’m very optimistic.”
Besides recovering large quantities of ferrous
and nonferrous metals, American ship recyclers also salvage and
market a wide variety of used marine parts. These include engines,
generators and other serviceable gear. For example, ESCO is recycling
an ex-Navy repair ship and selling off large amounts of machine
tools, pumps and exotic valve assemblies.
The United States leads the world in environmentally
responsible recycling of vessels, but seem to be the global exception.
Approximately 90 percent of world ship dismantling takes place
in Bangladesh, India and Pakistan under primitive, dangerous
and unhealthy working conditions that are also polluting the
oceans. In these yards, ships are beached at high tide, assaulted
by thousands of often untrained, unskilled workers without personal
protection equipment and without safety programs. There is total
disregard for hazardous materials such as asbestos, PCBs and
lead paint, found, unfortunately, in extremely high concentrations
in older ships. Little attention is paid to the proper disposal
of hydrocarbons such as grease, oil and diesel fuel. These hazardous
materials poison workers, pollute beaches and spill or leach
into the ocean to cause permanent damage to the ecosystem.
Jaross is passionate about protecting the environment and said,
“The world has not enforced stopping that type of pollution.
It’s a terrible scar of the ecological makeup of our world and
should not be allowed. Since we have the Safety at Sea Act, enforced
by all countries and covering every ship that goes to sea to
ensure the safety of the crew, we should have a requirement for
every ship to be recycled in a safe manner. Green shipyards like
ours should be the predominant way.” Jaross is referring to the
International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS),
an international maritime safety treaty. The SOLAS Convention
in its successive forms is generally regarded as the most important
of all international treaties concerning the safety of merchant
Contrast the bad practices taking place in many countries with
the American approach to dismantling. Under United States law
regulated by United States Maritime Administration (MARAD), an
agency of the United States Department of Transportation, and
the EPA, registered United States vessels containing hazardous
contaminants cannot be exported for dismantling. In addition
to dismantling and environmental regulations enforced by these
two agencies, ship recyclers must comply with state environmental
laws and Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA)
regulations and inspections.
There is only a handful of ship recycling companies in the United
States and all are mandated to follow green recycling practices.
Since ESCO appears to be the largest, it may serve as a model
for worldwide ship recycling. “I would say we are the largest
ship recycler in the country. It’s not for me to judge, but I
believe so in terms of tonnage, facility and people,” said Jaross.
At ESCO, approximately 400 workers dismantle up to 7 ships at
a time. All workers undergo safety training and safety officers
are present everyday in the yard and on vessels to enforce safety
and work rules. When workers arrive for a shift, they change
in a clean room into company supplied uniforms and are equipped
with appropriate job related personal protection equipment such
as hard hats, safety vests, gloves and respirators. Before lunch,
workers must wash their hands to remove any contaminants and
eat in an air-conditioned lunchroom. At end of shift workers
shower, change into street clothes and their uniforms are laundered
on site. Facility water is specially filtered to remove contaminants,
which are then properly disposed.
“We are regularly inspected by EPA and OSHA and we are considered
a very safe facility. Overall, I think we do an excellent job.
We operate on the Brownsville Ship Channel, which is a very clean
waterway. We even have porpoises come right up into our yard,”
Brownsville, Texas is just a few miles from Mexico and one of
the nation’s primary ship recycling areas. There, a 17-mile man
made channel connects the Port of Brownsville to the Gulf of
Mexico. Along the channel, ESCO owns three slips where ships
are dismantled. As a ship floats in a slip, crews come aboard
to begin remediation. “It takes months and months in our production
line to get a ship ready to dismantle because we spend a lot
of time properly cleaning the ship in preparation for cutting,”
First, fire hazards, asbestos, PCBs and hydrocarbons are removed
as well as salvageable equipment before actual cutting can begin.
While a ship is afloat, structural and plate steel, and nonferrous
metals are cut with torches and hydraulic shears. “We use capital
intensive equipment wherever possible including a modern wire
chopper to get the copper out of the shipboard cables,” Jaross
Starting at the top of the ship, large structural sections are
taken off and placed on engineered cutting pads for final processing.
As the hull is trimmed down to the waterline, winches begin to
pull the hull onto land where crews begin to dismantle the bow.
As steel is removed, the hull is winched forward until the entire
vessel is recycled.
“Most ships we do are 7,000 to 14,000 tons, but we’ve handled
vessels up to 18,000 tons We’re now bidding on the Saratoga,
a Forrestal Class aircraft carrier launched in 1955 which is
59,000 tons. We do 8,000 to 9,000 tons of ship scrap per month,
so if an average ship weighs 8,000 tons we are doing about 1
ship every month,” Jaross estimated.
Jaross reported his company has a backlog of ships waiting to
be recycled over the next year and that he is bidding on several
other ships being offered for sale. The majority of his raw stock
comes from the Navy and the Maritime Administration, the balance
are commercial ships. “We went through a rash of old oil rigs
back in the 1980s but now most are being repurposed for foreign
deployment. There are a lot of rigs sitting idle, but not many
are coming our way,” he added.
Of course, a ship is predominately made of structural and plate
steel with only a small percent of nonferrous. Plate is mostly
seven-eighths inch, with the balance one-half inch and occasionally
one inch. Ferrous is usually cut into two by five foot sections.
Nonferrous is broken down to the smallest practicable size, separated
by metal type and staged for sale. On its property, ESCO also
operates a traditional scrap metal feeder yard with a 4,500 hp
auto shredder and acquires metals other than from ships.
“We sell to the highest price FOB at our yard. Our output could
go to Mexican or United States markets by truck or rail, some
goes up the Mississippi river by barge, some goes to New Orleans
for export, some goes to Beaumont and Mobile to various mills.
In terms of steel, ships are one of the highest yields. We put
out beautiful steel, mills like it,” said Jaross.
In addition to dismantling at its Brownsville facility, ESCO
has sent work crews around the country to perform environmental
remediation on ships scheduled for sinking as artificial reefs.
“We have done that because it’s a contract, but we are not in
favor of the practice, “said Jaross.
Creating artificial reefs or breakwaters dates back thousands
of years and can be done with stone, primarily for harbor protection.
Using manufactured materials in the United States to create artificial
reefs is a rather recent development and the ecological implications
are not fully understood by science.
State agencies have promoted artificial reefs due to pressure
from the fishing industry to increase fish populations and from
divers to create recreational unities, but sinking old tires,
subway cars, busses, tugboats, naval vessels may just be creating
oceanic junkyards not in our long-term interests.
One of the earliest of the junk reefs was created in the early
70s from thousands of old auto tires off the coast of Fort Lauderdale,
Florida. It has caused serious environmental problems ever since.
In 2000, New York City Transit sold over 1,200 obsolete subway
cars that were sunk in the Atlantic and in 2007 it sold 1,600
more for reefing.
Among other vessels, ESCO prepared the USS Oriskany, a 30,800
ton WW2, Essex Class aircraft carrier for reefing in 2006. When
sunk off Pensacola, Florida, it formed the world’s largest artifical
“Before they sank the Oriskany the Navy did checks on the fish.
They were very healthy. After it was sunk, they found high levels
of PCBs in the fish liver. People catch and eat those fish. That
is not healthy,” Jaross feels. “It has been shown that reefing
ships has not helped increase fish populations, but sometimes
depletes them because fishermen go to that site and take larger
catches of fish. Sinking all this stuff in the bottom of the
sea is not helping the ecological condition of the ocean.”
A recent Broward County, Florida scientific study stated, “Although
it is too early in the study to draw firm conclusions, the appearance
of many fish species on the artificial reefs apparently absent
from nearby natural reefs may indicate the ships provide some
structural or chemical attribute which is lacking on the natural
That chemical attribute could be lead paint rusting off steel,
or other toxic substances absorbed by marine encrustations, nibbled
by fish and entering the food chain. Keep in mind, the USS Oriskany
was launched in 1945. Since then it was painted with multiple
coats of the highest quality (i.e. highest lead content) paint
that the Navy could buy. In fact, all older ships have layer
upon layer of lead paint because it best protects steel from
Navies around the world have also sunk thousands of ships in
live fire target practice contributing to ocean pollution. “You
can’t get all the lead paint off a ship and it gets into the
food chain. Reefing wastes natural resources. There are better
things made of concrete that you can put down for artificial
reefs. Ships should be recycled in the United States. They create
jobs, and have tremendous downstream effects in our economy,”
His point is well taken. It seems absurd to submerge metal of
any type in the ocean, particularly now when there is a global
shortage of scrap metal.