On a recent Friday morning, workers in the Esco Marine ship-breaking yard in Brownsville, Texas, were dismantling a 1944 U.S. Navy repair ship. This was the latest arrival in a steady convoy of aging military vessels, Maritime Administration ships, and merchant boats that have docked here, as a final stop, for years. Here in Brownsville, off the southern tip of Texas near the Gulf of Mexico, these old vessels get a kind of "decent retirement," in the words of Esco's CEO, Richard Jaross.
This means asbestos and other hazardous materials will be cleaned out. Some of the salvaged equipment will wind up on eBay. And then thousands of tons of steel will be stripped and recycled and sent to smelt shops and steel mills a few hours away by rail in Monterrey, Mexico. Much of it will eventually return to the U.S. as remnants of old war cruisers and merchant marine ships reborn as auto parts and appliances.
Brownsville’s role in this process—ship-breaking, not to be confused with ship-building—has given the border city of 200,000 with an Hispanic majority a unique economic niche. Esco is one of five large ship-breaking operations clustered at the end of Brownsville’s 17-mile shipping channel inland from the Gulf. And there are only eight companies certified to dismantle Navy ships in the country. This fall, the Navy is contracting three decommissioned Cold War-era super aircraft carriers—the Saratoga, the Forrestal, and the Constellation—and they will likely take their retirement here.
Those aircraft carriers everyone has been waiting for could each contain 60,000 tons of scrap metal (as well as the promise of hundreds more cutting and welding jobs). By law, none of those Navy ships can be sent for scrapping overseas, which is why this work continues in Brownsville when so much other recycling and salvaging has gone abroad (just look at what happens to your discarded computer and cell phone). The U.S. government, for obvious reasons, doesn’t want a Chinese company dismantling the Navy’s fleet. After all, the same is true of ships and circuit boards and game consoles: You can learn an awful lot about something by taking it apart.
Brownsville would represent a dramatically different destination from some of the Navy’s previous retirement plans to "recycle" ships by sinking them at sea, in the hopes of creating artificial reefs.
"Every warship I’ve taken apart has had a story to it," Jaross says. "They all have meaning because the lives of many people were put into building that ship, maintaining it, and fighting at sea with it." Esco Marine has recycled the U.S.S. Des Moines, a heavy cruiser built at the tail end of World War II, as well as a twin-hulled submarine rescue ship, combat support ships, and troop transport vessels.
Brownsville has become the country’s ship-breaking hub thanks to its port and the cheap land around it, its proximity to steel-processing plants further down the food chain, and its work force. Bay Bridge Texas, which relocated earlier this year to Brownsville from Chesapeake, Virginia, cited the local labor pool among the factors in its decision. "The rest of U.S. has a scarcity of welders," says Gilberto Salinas, executive vice president of the Brownsville Economic Development Council. "For some reason, our welders don’t want to leave town."
Jaross cites one other reason why Brownsville dismantles what others construct. "You have a community here that welcomes the business. A lot of places, if a scrap yard comes in, they don’t want that there," he says. "No one wants it in their community. It’s like having a coal operation."
Economic development campaigns are more often meant to bring in gleaming biotech campuses. Ship-breaking, however, has very little in common with the coal industry. "This is a business," Jaross says, "where we’re recycling things and creating resources for the future." In a sense, then, these are green jobs.
Salinas estimates that, in all, the steel industry tied to the port makes up as much as a quarter of the city’s economy. All of the steel coming to town in the form of hulking Navy vessels (as well as oil rigs and other ships) has made the port of Brownsville the third largest importer and exporter of steel in the country.
"San Francisco has Silicon Valley, New York has everything, Austin has their little niche," Salinas says. "But here we are. Yeah, there’s Pittsburgh, but then there’s Brownsville, Texas, where we have been and continue to mold our lives based on steel."
[Images courtesy of Esco]
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