Shipbreaking - Shipbreaking USA

The number of U.S. shipbreakers has plummeted in recent decades following the emergence of lower-priced competition from Asia. And a question mark now hangs over the future of the country’s six remaining ship recycling firms following a change of policy by MARAD, the US Marine Administration. Recycling International examines the plight of US ship recyclers in the context of global trends.

In the 1970s, the shipbreaking focus shifted from the traditional ship dismantling countries of the USA, the UK. Spain, Belgium and The Netherlands to low-wage Asian countries, forcing the Western World to limit their dismantling activities to small ships and obsolete marine vessels.

As a result of its relatively recent policy of banning exports of MARAD and US Naval vessels, the USA has become the world’s leading ‘green’ recycler of marine ships, providing jobs for 500 to 1000 workers, according to the workload, at six ship dismantling yards. They are all bound by the strictest environmental controls, to the extent that they are obliged to provide permanent accommodation for representatives of MARAD and NavySea, who oversee and manage the dismantling of vessels.

Without warning in 2003, the US Marine Administration (MARAD) reversed its policy and awarded 13 marine vessels from its so-called ‘Ghost Fleet’, to UK ship dismantler Able. Not only has this sparked fierce protests from UK environmentalists, but it has also jeopardised the future of the USA’s ship recyclers. The latter are fearful of a repeat of the 1970s when many domestic ship dismantlers were forced to close.

Having the next ship ready

Just as ship dismantling is effectively shipbuilding in reverse, the two activities are linked in another way: as one construction or dismantling project nears its end, ship recyclers and ship builders always look to have the next vessel ready to work on. Breakers always try to have one or more ships in reserve so that they avoid being put in the position of having to lay off skilled workers at the end of a job. The US’ six surviving shipbreakers have always been able to acquire more ships from MARAD and the US Navy at the appropriate moment given that the country’s reserve - ‘Ghost’ - fleet currently consists of some 121 old ships, many of which were built during or shortly after the Second World War. Of these, 47 lie moored on the James River in Chesapeake Bay; 60 are at Suisun Beach, California; and the remaining 14 are to be found in Beaumont, Texas. The majority are large vessels such as heavy cruisers, destroyers, aircraft carriers, and troop or wet/dry cargo carriers - all of which can take more than six months to dismantle.

The American shipbreaking industry

Visits to shipbreaking yards around the world confirm that nobody upholds environmental and safety measures as stringently as the Americans. In the past, the nation has been home to more than 100 ship recycling yards. Of the six that remain, four are located in Brownsville, Texas, along the Brownsville ship canal, some three miles from the Mexican border. These are operated by All Star Metals, Esco Marine, International Shipbreaking and Marine Metal/Transforma Marine. The other two US breakers are Bay Bridge Enterprises of Chesapeake, Virginia, and North American Ship Recycling of Sparrow Point in Maryland, on the east coast of the USA.

Deprived of the opportunity to break the commercial sea-going ships now heading almost exclusively to Asia, the six yards depend almost completely on receiving formerly combatant marine ships from the US Navy and non-combatant vessels from MARAD. The latter body is responsible for the disposal of troop transporters, oil tankers and marine cargo supply ships such as the World War II Liberty and Victory ships. It has been a standing policy of the USA since 1994 that Navy vessels will not be exported, but sold - for a negative price, if necessary - to domestic shipbreakers. Even the ships used for ‘reefing’ are often awarded to US ship scrappers so that they can be stripped of all toxic materials prior to being sunk.

For the Americans, the awarding of its ships to US recyclers is logical given that this is the only way the Navy can avoid exporting toxic wastes such as asbestos, hydrocarbons, PCBs and marine ships’ characteristic grey lead paint; and closely monitor the environmentally safe handling of its obsolete ships. Thanks to this policy, the USA is virtually the only Western World country still to have a thriving ship recycling business. Especially in Texas, where the unemployment rate of 13% exceeds the national average, ship recycling is nothing short of a blessing.

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