After 38 years of military service; including a key role in the Cuban missile crisis, the Vietnam War and the first Gulf War, The USS Saratoga is setting sail on its final journey. Sammy King, who served on the Saratoga, said “[It is] emotional in that we who served on ‘Sara’ feel that our ‘surrogate mother’ is passing from our lives. We owe her a lot. We went aboard as ‘snot-nosed kids’ and left as ‘men.’“ After the ship sat available for 12 years with no “viable applications” for donation as a museum or memorial, the U.S. Navy finally paid ESCO Marine to haul the ship away to be dismantled and recycled. So what does it cost to have an 81,101 ton ship hauled away? For the U.S. Navy: 1 shiny penny.
In the past, the Navy has taken a different approach to dealing with decommissioned ships. Previous “recycling” initiatives involved sinking the old ships to create artificial reefs. Now, these ships have a chance to be deconstructed, and begin a new life as auto parts and appliances. By law, U.S. naval ships cannot be sent overseas for scrapping for obvious security reasons. This policy means big business for firms that dismantle the ships, and more specifically, the entire town of Brownsville, where the Saratoga is headed.
With a population of around 200,000, Brownsville has found a unique economic niche in ship-breaking. In fact, Brownsville has become the country’s center for ship breaking, thanks in part to its proximity to steel-processing plants in Mexico, and the availability of a skilled labor force. Most cities’ economic initiatives include technology and medical programs, but Brownsville is happy to have the scrap industry. Richard Jaross, ESCO Marine’s CEO, says “You have a community here that welcomes the business. A lot of places, if a scrap yard comes in, they don’t want that there. Jaross adds, “No one wants it in their community. It’s like having a coal operation.”
According to Gilberto Salinas, Brownsville Economic Development Council Executive Vice President, “The rest of U.S. has a scarcity of welders. For some reason, our welders don’t want to leave town. That’s good news for the town of Brownsville, because it’s estimated that ship-breaking accounts for 25% of the city’s economy, and has made Brownsville the nation’s third-largest importer and exporter of steel. Salinas adds, “San Francisco has Silicon Valley, New York has everything, Austin has their little niche.. “And here we are. Yeah, there’s Pittsburgh, but then there’s Brownsville, Texas, where we have been and continue to mold our lives based on steel.”