Shipbreaking may mend marine yard

One Navy contract kept hundreds busy at Balto. business

Other contracts possible

Yard nearly dead when it was sold by Bethlehem Steel

May 14, 2000|By Kristine Henry | Kristine Henry,SUN STAFF

What was once a mighty submarine hunter, the frigate USS Patterson, is now a couple of Volkswagen Beetle-size hunks of steel and piles and piles of scrap, as Baltimore Marine Industries Inc.'s maiden voyage into the ship-scrapping business draws to a close.

Nearly 3,000 tons of steel, 461 tons of aluminum, 62 tons of brass and copper and 54 tons of electrical cable came off the 30-year-old ship, as did a slew of radar and radio equipment, diesel generators and machine presses, all of it to be sold for cash.

This is shipbreaking American-style: planned in advance, excruciatingly methodical, and all executed in conjunction with regulators making sure it is done by the book.

Until recently, retired defense ships were dismantled overseas at a profit for the United States, but the work was often done under unsafe conditions that brought fires, accidents and death to the workers.

In 1998, Congress adopted legislation setting up a pilot program to test new methods of scrapping ships, and Vice President Al Gore, under prodding from Sen. Barbara Mikulski, a Maryland Democrat, instituted a one-year moratorium on dismantling Navy and Maritime Administration ships overseas. The ban expired in October, and there is movement in Washington to again let some work be done outside the United States.

Even so, Baltimore Marine officials are eagerly awaiting word on when and if they will get another scrapping contract.

The yard received the Patterson in November, when the 4,000-ton vessel was towed by tug from Philadelphia through the Chesapeake & Delaware canal. The $3.8 million scrapping project meant work for 200 shipyard employees at its peak.

The beefed-up employment numbers are particularly significant for Baltimore Marine, a yard that was nearly shuttered three years ago when then-owner Bethlehem Steel Corp. couldn't find a buyer for the business unit it no longer wanted.

Two deals, including one with attorney and Baltimore Orioles principal owner Peter G. Angelos, fell through and Bethlehem eventually sold the yard to Veritas Capital Inc. for $16 million - far less than the $30 million it had originally sought. The deal was consummated with help from the union, which took a 75-cent- per-hour wage cut in return for profit sharing.

The shipyard that employed more than 8,000 during World War II is slowly coming back to life and wants all the work it can get.

"We are really anxious to get going on the next [scrapping job]," said Baltimore Marine Vice President Steve Sullivan. "We feel we've got momentum and we don't want to lose it."

The Navy has enough money left over from its fiscal year 2000 budget for two more ship scrappings, and President Clinton is requesting another $12.2 million for FY 2001. That would likely cover three more scrappings, but the Navy can't be sure it has the money until the appropriations bill winds its way through Congress and the president signs it.

Navy officials are likely to award two contracts on the East Coast by the end of the month, but they won't speculate on who will get the work.

In the first round, the Navy gave one contract to Baltimore Marine and the other to Metro Machine Corp. of Philadelphia. Two other contracts were awarded in California and Texas.

When the new contracts are awarded, Baltimore Marine could get both ships, one ship or neither.

"We think all the contractors, including Baltimore Marine, were very responsive to the Navy's needs. We selected a good group of contractors to do the first ships," said Capt. Garry Hall, the Navy's ship-disposal program manager. "One of the things we were pleased with at Baltimore Marine was that they moved quickly and met the schedule and exceeded the completion dates for major milestones."

Baltimore Marine might have moved quickly, but its director of safety, Rich Hibler, said the whole process was more involved than he'd imagined.

"All we've done is build ships here, and then we got into repairs. I just thought it was going to be easier," he said. "It takes a lot of planning and perseverance - it's quite a job."

Before Baltimore Marine could dig in, it had subcontractors remove hazardous materials such as asbestos and PCBs. Then shipyard employees went in with pumps and forced in air to remove the combustible gases from tanks and pipes.

"It has to be done or we couldn't cut pipes with a torch - you'd have fuel and fire and dead people," Hibler said. "One of my greatest fears on this job was that we do that correctly, and we did."

Once all the hazardous materials and valuable machinery were removed, workers were able to get down to the guts of the project - slicing the ship into 58 pieces, with about 50 workers cutting along pink spray-painted lines with hand-held electric saws.

Cranes moved the pieces - typically 25 tons each - off the ship and onto a platform where they were further reduced with a hydraulic sheer. The scrap was then taken by truck to scrap yards. The project should be wrapped up within the next few weeks.

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