RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
Now a trip to a city that sees a big future in recycling. No cans or bottles here. This is much dirtier work. Brownsville, Texas, has become the ship-breaking capital of the U.S. A number of companies have set up shop - dismantling moth-balled warships, among other things. They'll have lots of work this fall, when the U.S. Navy scraps three Cold War-era aircraft carriers. [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: While the carriers are likely to be sent to Brownsville, nothing has been confirmed.] NPR's Wade Goodwyn paid a visit, and sent this report.
WADE GOODWYN, BYLINE: Walk inside a ship that's being scrapped, and you'll find one of the nastiest places imaginable. Filthy; rusty; everything poisonous and salvageable, torn out. If it's rained, it's all wet, too. Brush up against a bulkhead, and you can kiss that white shirt you cleverly wore goodbye.
(SOUNDBITE OF CUTTING TORCH)
GOODWYN: But if you're a ship cutter, this is your office; and your cutting torch, your music to work by. Sixty welders work here so far at Bay Bridge Texas LLC, but more will be hired. [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: Cutters will be hired, not welders.] Sergio Cazeres started cutting ships in 1992. Cazeres says the first cuts they make are in the side of the ship.
SERGIO CAZERES: In the hulls, we make cuts so air can flow in. If it's too hot, then we provide them - like, fans.
GOODWYN: From a distance, the ship looks as though giant Post-it notes have been slapped onto the hull. But the ship's been turned into Swiss cheese for ventilation and light.
In the last two decades, the landlocked City of Brownsville has become the center of the ship recycling industry. Five of the nation's eight recycling companies are here. It's like Home Depot locating next to Lowe's, locating next to Ace Hardware. The ship-breaking companies have just kept coming.
BARRY CHAMBERS: Infrastructure, the deep water channel, the weather.
GOODWYN: Barry Chambers is in the process of building the nation's newest ship recycling yard. His company, backed by Indian investors with deep pockets, just moved from Chesapeake, Virginia, to Brownsville.
CHAMBERS: This land did not look like this. I put in 175,000 cubic yards of fill; leveled and compacted it.
GOODWYN: Its piers are built to handle ships as large as aircraft carriers.
CHAMBERS: So I've got 24-inch, poured-in-place pilings with steel in it; 60 feet down, with 52 of them in each pier.
GOODWYN: This is all made possible by the deepwater port of Brownsville, which 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. Recycled ships are 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, up a ramp. Large, white air bags are rolled underneath.
CHAMBERS: That bag will support 250 tons.
GOODWYN: Chambers says he moved the company from Virginia to Texas because of the warm weather and the workforce, which he pays between 10- and $13 an hour.
CHAMBERS: And the Hispanic workforce that I found here, is excellent. It's attitude, more than anything. And every day here is a little different - you know, this isn't an assembly line job. And every day, you have to use your wits.
GOODWYN: In a nation hungry for working-class jobs, ship recycling is helping to drive Brownsville's economy, even at these relatively low wages. Nearly a thousand welders scrap 80 percent of the ships recycled in the U.S. After the ship is dismantled, Chambers used to send much of his steel to Monterrey, Mexico, in railroad cars. But incredibly, the boxcars began showing up empty. Twenty boxcars, 60 tons of steel in each; market value 10 to 15 cents a pound - gone. Chambers has no idea how the bandits were doing it.
CHAMBERS: It's unbelievable. I mean, we've even tried welding the steel in there. Then we tried welding bars across the top of it - and it still disappears.
GOODWYN: So now the steel goes by barge, and the shipments arrive intact; and a few months later, come back into the U. S. as automobile frames, engines and parts to be assembled here. It's the availability of ships to be recycled, that drives the industry. And as the nation's reserve fleet of aging warships and tankers has become too old to use, those ships are increasingly being sold for scrap.
With the world economy slowing, the price for steel has decreased lately. But that doesn't mean you can't make money breaking ships. Chris Wood is vice president of ESCO Marine, in Brownsville.
CHRIS WOOD: There's a percentage make-up of nonferrous metals. That's your coppers, your brass - you know, monels that are higher value. So if the scrap market is down but the vessel is still very rich in nonferrous metals, the project - for us - can still be a lucrative one.
UNIDENTIFIED WORKER: I'm up here - woo! Hey!
(SOUNDBITE OF MACHINERY)
GOODWYN: Back on board, the ship cutters remove everything of value and sell it - the furniture, the plumbing, the fixtures, the lighting. You can get some good deals. Who needs IKEA? I think a nautical theme would work well in here.
Wade Goodwyn, NPR News, Dallas.