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When The Ship Comes In To Brownsville, Rip it Up : NPR

Back on board at Chambers yard, the ship cutters remove everything of value — the furniture, the plumbing, the fixtures, the lighting — and sell it. A shopper can get some good deals — if theyre open to a nautical theme.

The ship recycling company Bay Bridge Texas recently moved to Brownsville, Tex., the center of the U.S. ship-breaking industry. Bay Bridge's scrapped metal is shipped to Mexico, where it is transformed into automobile parts.

This fall, the U.S. Navy will contract three Cold War-era aircraft carriers — the USS Forrestal, the USS Independence and the USS Constellation — for scrapping. Often called “supercarriers” due to their massive size, each ship contains nearly 60,000 tons of steel and other metal.

All three carriers will be sent to Bay Bridge Texas, LLC, a ship recycling firm near Brownsville, Texas, to be ripped apart.

Tearing up big ships can be a very lucrative business. It’s also a messy one. Walk inside a ship that’s being scrapped, and you’ll find one of the nastiest places imaginable: filthy and rusty, with everything that’s poisonous and salvageable torn out.

If it’s rained, everything’s all wet, too. Brush up against a bulkhead and you can kiss a white shirt goodbye.

But if you’re a ship cutter, this is your office, and your cutting torch, your music to work by. Sixty welders are employed here at Bay Bridge Texas so far, but even more will be hired soon.

An tanker ship waiting to be recycled. Even ships that appear to be in good working condition are valuable as scrap metal.

Bay Bridge Texas is the nation’s newest ship recycling yard, says senior vice president Barry Chambers. The company, backed by Indian investors with deep pockets, just moved from to Brownsville from Chesapeake, Va.

The deepwater Port of Brownsville lies inland at the end of a 17-mile channel connecting to the Gulf of Mexico. The long channel provides unparalleled protection from hurricanes and tropical storms.

An tanker ship waiting to be recycled. Even ships that appear to be in good working condition are valuable as scrap metal.

In the last two decades, this landlocked city has become the center of the U.S. ship recycling industry. Five of the nation’s eight recycling companies are here. It’s like Home Depot locating right next to Lowe’s and Ace Hardware.

Chambers says the infrastructure, the deep water channel and the weather all make the Texas city particularly attractive for his company. But building the yard, he says, still required plenty of work.

“This land did not look like this,” Chambers says. “I put in 175,000 cubic yards of fill, leveled and compacted it.”

Now, the yard’s piers are built to handle ships as large as air craft carriers. The pilings, made of steel cores, sink 60-feet deep.

From a distance, the tanker ship at the dock looks as though giant Post-It notes have been slapped onto the hull. But those squares are actually holes; the ship’s been turned into Swiss cheese for ventilation and light.

Sergio Cazeres, who’s been cutting ships since 1992, says the first cuts are made in the side of the ship. “In the hulls, we make cuts so the air can flow in,” he says. “If it’s too hot then we provide fans.”

Recycled ships are typically scrapped from the top down and from front to back. As the steel is harvested, the bow lightens, and powerful winches begin to pull the ship out of the water and up a ramp.

Large white air bags, supporting 250 tons of weight, are rolled underneath.

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