The Center for Land Use Interpretation Newsletter

American Ship Breaking


Brownsville shipbreaking

CLUI photo
Brownsville shipbreaking, looking southward towards Mexico. CLUI photo

PHOTOGRAPHS AND FILMS OF THE massive truncated hulks of scrapped ships beached on muddy Asian shores are among the most striking images of the contrasts of globalism. These images show people taking oil tankers apart by hand, and in bare feet. Somewhere around 90% of the world’s ship breaking takes place in this way in Pakistan (Gaddani Beach), Bangladesh (Chittagong) and in India. The biggest yard in the world is in Alang, India, in the State of Gujarat, where high tides enable ships to beach themselves under their own power, along a seven mile stretch of the nation’s west coast, and where up to 30,000 people work to take them apart. With aging fleets and increasing regulations in the West, the industry has moved to where labor is cheap, where environmental laws are still weak, and where the need for work, and steel, is high.

However, there are still are a few companies in the business in the United States. Though rules relating to the handling and disposal of the toxic materials that are built into old ships, including residual hydrocarbons, lead paint, asbestos, and PCBs, make the business run differently here then in the wild East ("ship breaking” is a term that is slowly being replaced by “ship recycling”). The industry is subsidized by the fact that federal policy prevents government ships from being scrapped by other countries, for the most part. With hundreds of such ships floating around the country, and around the globe, the domestic ship breaking industry is likely to continue.

In fact, ship breaking in the United States is booming at the moment, as congressional mandates to reduce the rotting hulks in the three Ghost Fleets of the nation are being implemented. These mothball fleets are composed primarily of US Maritime Administration (MARAD) reserve ships, initially kept in case they needed to be activated again for war. These reserve fleets started after WWII, the biggest ship-building boom in history. In 1950, there were over 2,000 surplus federal ships, tied together in slack water clusters around the nation. Over the years, they were redeployed, converted to commercial use, scrapped, or sunk offshore. Today, MARAD has less than 200 ships in their mothball fleets, still mostly WWII era cargo ships, cruisers, destroyers, and even aircraft carriers.

The James River Ghost Fleet, off the shore at Fort Eustis, Virginia, is providing the majority of the ship breaking work in the nation right now. This ghost fleet was once the largest in the nation, with more than 800 ships in storage after WWII, stored here because it was up the river from the East Coast hub of the Navy, and the water was brackish enough that corrosion from salt water would be minimized. By 2001, the fleet was down to 107 ships. It now has less than 25.

Some of the ships were reefedadopted by states to sink offshore, a practice that stimulates reef formation, and provides destinations for scuba divers. Others have been sunk at sea in live-fire military training exercises. Most of the 70 ships that have been scrapped from the fleet in the past ten years were taken apart at one of three ship breaking yards in the USA, two of which are in the mid-Atlantic.

Bay Bridge Enterprises of Chesapeake, Virginia, operates a facility along the industrial estuaries that surround the Norfolk Naval Shipyard, one of several Naval bases in the region around the mouth of the James River, the Navy’s principal East Coast hub. Bay Bridge is capable of handling up to three ships at a time. The company has been owned by the Adani Group, an Indian industrial conglomerate, since 2005. The second mid-Atlantic ship breaking operation is at Sparrows Point, Maryland, the mostly defunct hyper-industrialized steel peninsula near Baltimore. Part of the shipyard at the plant, which once cranked out hundreds of steel-hulled ships, became a ship breaking yard. The yard, recently operated by North American Ship Recycling, shut down a few years ago, and may or may not open again.

The Brownsville Ship Channel, a straight cut 15 miles inland from the Gulf of Mexico

CLUI photo
The Brownsville Ship Channel, a straight cut 15 miles inland from the Gulf of Mexico. CLUI photo

The third ship breaking site in the USA is at the very bottom of the country, in Brownsville, Texas, just a few miles from Mexico. This is where the vast majority of the nation’s federal ships are broken apart. A 15 mile-long channel, made from scratch from 1934-1936, connects the Port of Brownsville to the ocean, at South Padre Island. Built inland to protect the port from hurricanes, not much occurs along the channel’s first ten miles. The inland end of the channel is home to a modest amount of shipping terminals, taking advantage of the proximity to Mexico, three miles away. One of the largest oil platform manufacturing yards in the nation is the largest single tenant at the port, the AMFELS rig yard. But the ship breaking industry covers more land and shoreline of the Channel than any other activity.

ESCO is the largest shipbreaking company operating in the United States

CLUI photo
ESCO is the largest shipbreaking company operating in the United States, and one of four companies on the Brownsville Ship Channel. CLUI photo

Currently four companies are in the ship breaking business here, though Bay Bridge, from Virginia, is hoping to enter into the market here too. The largest of the companies is ESCO marine, which has dismantled more than 500 ships at this location. ESCO has three slots, which are long coves dug diagonally into the side of the channel, where the ships are grounded, that allow access to the ship for dismantling. The ships are not drydocked, for disassembly, they are beached inside the slot, sometimes two at a time. Often, as one shrinks as pieces are removed, another one comes in behind it, when there is room. The mouth of the slots are roped off with a booms to keep materials from escaping.

Ship on its last legs at ESCO

CLUI photo
Ship on its last legs at ESCO. The largest ships can take as much as six months to take apart. CLUI photo

Between these slots at ESCO is an active 88 acre yard full of scrap piles, metal processing machinery, cranes, and processing areas where larger chunks of the ship have been removed and are being cut down on shore with torches and other equipment. ESCO has salvaged former offshore rigs as well. Across the channel from ESCO is the International Shipbreaking yard, with two slots, one of which is the largest of the seven that are currently active in Brownsville. The company says it has “the largest and most specialized facility for ship dismantling in the United States.” The facility is capable of handling up to nine vessels at a time, and accommodates ships up to 1,000 feet in length. This company has been active since 1995, and has plans to expand its facilities at Brownsville.

Next to the International Shipbreaking yard is the Marine Metals yard, with one slot. Across the channel, on the east side of the AMFELS yard is another slot, used by All-Star Metals, the fourth ship breaking company here.

International Shipbreaking

CLUI photo
One of the two slots at International Shipbreaking, where one ship is just about done, and another has just begun. CLUI photo

There are just over a dozen ships left in the Ghost Fleet at the northern end of Texas’ Gulf Coast, on the Neches River, near Beaumont, some of which are destined for Brownsville soon. The vast majority of ships are at the third remaining Reserve Fleet site, in the muddy Suisun Bay, east of San Francisco. With more than 60 ships remaining, Suisun Bay is now by far the largest Ghost Fleet in the nation. Located off the shore of Benecia, across from a former arsenal and a current oil refinery, the ships are tethered into seven clusters, and tended by service boats from a dedicated wharf. Ships are being removed from this site more slowly as there has been disagreements about how to prepare them for shipment to Brownsville.

Though the federal government was suggesting cleaning them on site in the Bay before shipment, state environmentalists disagreed. It has recently been decided that the ships will now be cleaned up in local dry docks to remove them of invasive species before heading out to sea. The three most recent ships selected for dismantling are being cleaned up at BAE systems, in San Francisco.

Meanwhile, some local companies are trying to win the scrap contracts away from Brownsville. These operations would occur at the Mare Island Shipyard, a massive former military shipyard with several drydocks, just a few miles away from Suisun Bay. These companies are working their way through the stringent California environmental regulatory permit process. But until and if these local companies are permitted, the ships of the Suisun Bay Ghost Fleet will make their last journey under tow, via the Panama Canal, all the way to Brownsville, where they will meet with their undoing. 

ghost fleet

CLUI photo
One of seven rafts of tethered ships in the Reserve Fleet of Suisun Bay, California, the largest Ghost Fleet left in the country. CLUI photo