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Founded in 1946, Bollinger Shipyards is one of the few private shipbuilding companies still family owned and operated. The Lockport-based company currently operates thirteen facilities located along the Louisiana and Texas Gulf Coast as well as the Mississippi River. Bollinger operates 40 dry docks with capacities ranging from 100 to 22,000 tons, and services both shallow-draft and deepwater vessels. Chairman and CEO Donald Bollinger is proud of the fact that since 1984, his company has provided all patrol boats used by the U.S. Navy and Coast Guard. “That, in itself, is a pretty big accomplishment,” he says.

Asbestos Exposure

As a regional family business with strong ties to the local community, Bollinger Shipyards Inc. strives to uphold a high standard of ethics that includes a commitment to safety, honesty and integrity, and respect for people and the environment.

Given the high esteem in which the late founder Donald G. Bollinger was held by the people who knew him, it is difficult to believe that his company would have deliberately and knowingly endangered the lives of their employees. Unfortunately, information regarding the hazards of asbestos was hidden so effectively by the asbestos industry and the U.S. government that even conscientious management at small companies were most likely unaware of it.

Those who worked in shipyards between 1940 and 1980 are at the highest risk for developing asbestos-related diseases such as asbestosis or even fatal forms of asbestos cancer like mesothelioma, a cancer that affects the lining of the lungs, heart, stomach, and/or other organs. Medical science had confirmed most of what is now known about the health effects of asbestos. Both the asbestos industry and the U.S. Navy were complicit in suppressing this information.

In the case of the Navy’s role however, it may be helpful – if not comforting – to put the cover-up in historical perspective.

National Emergency

After well over six decades, it is difficult for those without firsthand memories of those to appreciate the effect of the attack on Pearl Harbor on U.S. society. Although it was increasingly accepted that hostilities would break out at some point, no-one really knew where or from which direction the opening attack would come. When it did happen, it destroyed most of the U.S. Pacific Fleet.

Until the Battle of Midway six months later, the war went badly for the U.S.; victory was not a foregone conclusion. It was felt necessary to take drastic steps in order to restore the Pacific Fleet as soon as possible.

Shipboard fires are considered the most life-threatening situation a vessel’s crew can face. This threat is exacerbated by combat situations. Because of its flame retardant properties, asbestos was used in vast quantities throughout every ship constructed. Unfortunately, the enclosed environment below decks meant that such workers received maximum exposure.

Meanwhile, there are indications that at that the Roosevelt Administration felt it desirable – if not necessary – to suppress health information regarding asbestos for fear it would “cause disturbances in the labor element”.

It could be argued that sacrifices were expected of everyone during that time of national emergency; those who put on a uniform were also risking their lives, and often sacrificing those lives in service to the nation.

The difference is that the men and women who went into combat were well aware of the dangers they faced and what the consequences would be. In addition, death in combat is usually immediate, and fairly quick.

For the shipyard workers, there was no such knowledge – and death would be slow and painful. Charles Ay, a former shipyard worker and malignant mesothelioma victim, said in 2003: “If they had just told us about the dangers up front, we could have made our own decisions…but I guess that’s what they were afraid we would do”.

In the meantime, if you believe you were exposed in the course of shipyard employment, it is important to gather as much information as possible. In a lawsuit where willful negligence cannot be proved against a former employer, it is still possible to bring suit against the manufacturer of any asbestos products used or their successors.