Ship recycling industry boomsClick to Enlarge - The segregation of plastic shows the increasing pressures to recover plastic material for processing.
E-mail the author

They used to be called “ship-breakers,” but that term is now outdated.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 ships.

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,” Jaross touted.

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,” said Jaross.

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 explained.

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 reef.

“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 reef.”

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 salt water.

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,” Jaross concluded.

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.