Aboard the Giant Sand-sucking Ships that China Uses to Reshape the World

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Posted January 1, 2019

Fifteen miles out on the water south of Biloxi, Mississippi, below a cloudless sky, a foaming torrent of gray-black slurry gushes into a ship. Every three seconds, another truckload’s worth of salt water and sand, siphoned from the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico, pours into the Ellis Island’s vast, open cargo hold, called a hopper. The ship is gargantuan—the biggest such dredge ever built in the United States. Its progress is, by design, slow. It is hauling a pair of 30-ton drag heads, studded with steel teeth, which scrape along the sandy sea bottom. Twin pipes, each three feet (90 centimeters) in diameter, connect the drag heads to giant pumps on the ship’s deck. The pumps suck slurry into the hopper, which slowly fills with roiling gray soup, speckled with muculent, softball-size bubbles.

“We call ourselves dirt merchants,” Gabriel Cuebas, the Ellis Island’s captain, told me when I visited on a hot October day. His ship is 433 feet (132 meters) long—a good bit longer than an American football field and about half the length of an aircraft carrier. Twin yellow cranes perch on either side of the deck. Their metal bulk towers over a maze of catwalks and pipes that surround the hopper.

Source: MIT Technology Review