Shallow water hurting shipyard

Bigger new vessels need more than 27 feet

Some repair contracts lost

Deepening projects cost in the millions

May 05, 2002|By Robert Little | Robert Little,SUN STAFF

Baltimore Marine Industries Inc., which operates the former Bethlehem Steel shipyard in Sparrows Point, is slowly losing some of its steadiest and most profitable business because the shipyard's channels and anchorages are too shallow to accommodate modern military vessels.

The yard lost a $6.5 million Navy contract last month because of concerns about depth, even though it submitted the low bid to perform the work. Sources there say such losses stretch into the tens of millions of dollars.

Executives of BMI declined requests for interviews.

One of the shipyard's largest customers, the Navy's Military Sealift Command, expects to continue seeking bids from the Baltimore facility for maintenance and repair work. But a spokeswoman said Navy officials have "taken notice" of the depth problem and will need to consider it as contracts are awarded.

"There is a point beyond which we can't, and won't, risk taking a ship in," said Marge Holtz, spokeswoman for the Military Sealift Command, which operates the Navy's cargo and research vessels. "I'm not saying that we've reached that point, but you can see the numbers yourself." Modern cargo ships such as those operated by the Military Sealift Command typically need 30 to 35 feet of water to operate safely at sea. Some need nearly 50 feet when fully loaded.

Ships headed to a shipyard don't require as much water. They are usually empty and can be temporarily raised higher by clearing ballast tanks and removing excess fuel and supplies. That process is called lightering.

The depth at the BMI shipyard is as little as 27 feet in some areas. That offers plenty of clearance for most empty ships, but the Navy and commercial operators push the boundaries of capacity and buoyancy with each ship they build. And that 27 feet of depth is becoming an ever tighter fit.

"Some of those bigger [Military Sealift Command] ships have a hard time lightering up that high," said Mark Adams, president of the Association of Maryland Docking Pilots. "We're usually pretty successful, but we're dealing with a channel that's been there for years, and the ships keep getting bigger."

Ship ran aground

A Military Sealift Command ship ran aground at the yard two years ago. No damage was caused, but the yard's depth limitations were on public display. The ship that hit bottom, the sealift vessel MV Cpl. Louis J. Hauge Jr., has an operating draft of 32 feet, 1 inch - not particularly deep.

A vessel in the shipyard last week, the MV 1st Lt. Alex Bonnyman, has an operating draft of 32 feet 10 inches and had to remove fuel and equipment to fit.

The contract that the yard lost last month was for the sealift vessel USNS Sisler, one of the Navy's newest ships, with an operating draft of 34 feet. The Navy spokeswoman would not discuss bids for the Sisler's repair work, but a shipyard source confirmed that BMI bid lower than Northrop Grumman's Newport News Shipbuilding yard in Virginia, which won the $6.5 million maintenance job.

The Sisler is in Newport News' dry-dock 12, the same one used to build aircraft carriers. A yard spokeswoman said she wasn't sure of the maximum draft at the Newport News dry-dock because nothing has come close to reaching it.

"We're in the mouth of the James River and the Chesapeake Bay, right off the Atlantic Ocean," said Newport News spokeswoman Jerri Fuller Dickseski. "Draft isn't really an issue here."

The BMI shipyard is next to the Bethlehem Steel Corp. mill in Sparrows Point, just southeast of the Key Bridge. Its largest dry-dock is within a few hundred yards of the Brewerton Channel, a 50-feet-deep swath carved into the bottom of the Patapsco River. That channel is deep enough to accommodate virtually any ship in the world, particularly empty ones.

The Army Corps of Engineers dredges the Brewerton Channel regularly to maintain its depth, but the channels leading into the shipyard are not eligible for federally funded dredging because they serve only a private business.

MPA's help sought

Shipyard officials have asked the Maryland Port Administration to help, perhaps by forming some type of partnership that might make the yard eligible for government dredging money.

No cost estimate was available for deepening the shipyard's channels, but even modest deepening projects undertaken by the Corps of Engineers typically cost several million dollars.

Once part of a major shipbuilding operation, the Sparrows Point yard has not constructed an oceangoing vessel in more than 10 years. The yard was owned by Bethlehem Steel until 1997 and today focuses on maintenance and repair work, nearly all of it on government-owned vessels.

Baltimore Marine Industries typically has 500 or more employees, depending on the amount of shipyard work available.

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