Bethlehem Steel Corp. is considering bidding to build five ships, a move that could return the company's Baltimore County yard to shipbuilding after two years as a ship repair facility.
Winning such a contract would have a profound impact on the troubled Sparrows Point shipyard and mean that hundreds of idled shipyard workers could be recalled to work.
Bethship, the recently renamed shipbuilding unit of the Bethlehem, Pa., steelmaker, is studying the possibility of bidding for five Texaco Oil Co. tankers, says Bethship President David Watson.
"We haven't decided to do it yet. I want to stress that," Watson says.
Texaco is uncertain as well. A spokesman for Texaco said it had has not definitely decided to build the ships but that it has asked a number of shipyards to provide information on costs. The proposals are due in July.
"We're really just information collecting," the spokesman said.
Bethlehem Steel said in 1989 that it would get out of the shipbuilding business until the market for U.S-built vessels improved. At the time of the announcement, an official said the company probably would not resume construction unless it could build a series of ships.
Employment at the yard has fluctuated from a low of about 400 two months ago to about 650 today.
Watson said yesterday that the possibility of a five-ship contract for tankers -- once a specialty of the yard -- may represent the right opportunity. He plans to make a presentation on the issue to the company's top executives.
In exporing the feasibility of making a bid, Watson said the company is investigating whether there are enough skilled ship workers left in the area and whether the contrat would justify the costs of resuming construction at the yard.
Bethlehem Steel has not bid on a ship construction contract in about seven years, he said. If the company were to gear up for a major tanker project, employment at the yard could hit 2,000, he said.
Watson said the yard also hopes to win this year a "phased maintenance" contract to perform periodic maintenance on four Navy ships over five years. The contract could provide work for up to 1,200 ship workers, he said.
Watson met yesterday with Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., who held a news conference at the yard to announce some legislation she is co-sponsoring. The bill, to be introduced next week, would penalize countries that subsidize their shipbuilding.
Rep. Helen Delich Bentley, R-2nd, is a co-sponsor of identical legislation in the House of Representatives.
If enacted, the bill would prohibit ships built in the last two years from calling at U.S. ports unless the owner repaid any subsidy granted for its construction.
Watson said he also talked with Mikulski about a plan the Navy is considering to order 40 new "roll on, roll off" ships specially designed to allow tanks and other cargo to be driven on and off. The Navy has said it may purchase up to 20 of the 40 ships from foreign yards, an aide to Mikulski said.
Mikulski said she will urge the government to instead hire yards such as Sparrows Point to convert existing cargo ships to the roll-on, roll-off configuration.
"I say, 'Don't go shopping overseas,' " Mikulski said.