Old Ships Build the Future
International Shipbreaking Ltd. CEO Chris Green moves among employees with ease, greeting them with waves, smiles and handshakes.
Walking across the hangar deck of the aircraft carrier USS Independence, he stopped to talk with two workers. “How’s your boy doing?” he asked one man whose son had been experiencing health problems.
“We have a group of really hard-working people around here,” Green said. “They are our greatest asset.”
The USS Independence is the most recent U.S. Navy ship to arrive at International Shipbreaking, where work has already begun to both dismantle and recycle metal from the Forrestal-class aircraft carrier. It is the third decommissioned carrier to undergo the transformation from warship to eventually scrap metal at the Port of Brownsville facility.
The last pieces of the USS Constellation were shipped out just weeks before the Independence docked at the company’s 56-acre metal recycling yard. Salvage work on the USS Ranger is in the final stages.
Vice President Robert Berry, an experienced tug boat captain, has been part of International Shipbreaking since 1995 when the company was started by a group of Rio Grande Valley investors who saw the port as an ideal location to build a business salvaging and selling metal from old ships.
“It’s the proximity of Mexico and all of the modes of transportation available here are big factors in what we do. We have access to the world – easy access.”
Metal can be shipped from the port by rail, barge and truck. Nearby airports in both Brownsville and Harlingen offer access to air cargo carriers.
An investment in the past
The Brownsville port is also home to two other large scrap metal recycling operations, All Star Metals and SteelCoast.
In 2010 International Shipbreaking was acquired by the EMR Group, a global company specializing in metal recycling operations.
“They saw the future and came in,” Berry said. EMR launched a $25-million infrastructure improvements program at International Shipbreaking that included 1,100 feet of bulkhead, two 28-feet-deep mooring locations, 655,830 square feet of concrete vessel section processing and recycled material areas, and new underground piping for fuel, oxygen, compressed air, water and breathing air.
“It took a big leap,” Green said about the improvements. “There hasn’t been this kind of money invested in this industry ever.”
U.S. Navy ships, World War II liberty ships and offshore drilling rigs as well as commercial vessels have all been torn apart and resold as scrap metal to willing buyers in the United States, Mexico and around the globe, Berry said. The company has recycled more than 500,000 tons of scrap metal since 1995.
Green said the company always keeps an eye out for smaller jobs as well. A couple dozen flattened cars, including a few old police cruisers, are stacked in the yard for recycling. Aluminum salvaged from private prison buildings in Raymondville that were torn down is also piled up at the facility.
Green said he expects the 60,000-ton Independence to yield more than 50,000 tons of copper, brass, steel, armored plate and other metals, a project that could take up to two years. “But we have high hopes to finish this project in 18 months,” he said.
The Navy pays International Shipbreaking one dollar to take possession of the ship and then conduct the recycling operations. The Navy continues to own the vessels while they are being dismantled and in addition, a naval representative is on-site to ensure the work is carried out to the highest safety and environmental standards, Green said. All of the armored plate, the highest grade of hardened metal on the ship, will be sold to a Pennsylvania mill for recycling. From there a Deparment of Defense contractor will purchase the metal for use in ships, helicopter parts and other military hardware.
“We couldn’t have a better customer than the Navy,” said Green, who moved to the Valley from Houston in 2001. Green owned an environmental consulting firm until joining International Shipbreaking in 2013.
Some salvage operations will fluctuate the numbers of workers on the job depending on ups and downs in the industry but International Shipbreaking keeps 200 employees on the job consistently.
“We have never had a layoff,” Green said. “We have made this a career for people. Nobody makes less than $10 an hour and of course some make considerably more than that. It’s not a joke. It’s something we take very seriously.”
Green believes in taking care of the workers by offering good pay and benefits, a safe environment and also first-rate equipment.
“We give them all a piece of our safety culture,” Green said. “We do daily safety training. It’s a big deal.”
And there is a personal satisfaction that comes from being part of history. Green said veterans who served on these ships turn out in droves to watch them being towed down the Brownsville Ship Channel to the port. And furthermore, many of them contact International Shipbreaking in hopes of retrieving a souvenir.
“Sometimes they ask us for a door plate or some other object that has meaning to them,” Green said. “We do what we can to accommodate them.”