Between 1909 and 1996, the Charleston Naval Shipyard was a primary servicing facility for the U.S. Navy, located north of the city on the Cooper River. Over the years, the yard produced a large number of smaller combat and auxiliary ships, including destroyers, gunboats, tugboats, coal and ammunition barges and sub chasers, while performing repair operations and conversions on hundreds more. By the 1960s, the yard was primarily a servicing facility for nuclear powered submarines.
With the end of the Cold War in the early 1990s, the Navy turned the yard over to the Charleston Naval Complete Redevelopment Authority (CNCRA). In 1996, the facility was awarded to a locally-owned private enterprise, Detyen’s Shipyards, Inc. Currently, this company employs 800 workers, and services naval vessels of several different nations.
Between the yard’s closure in 1993 and its takeover by Detyens in 1996, the facility was the focus of a massive, $1.1 million dollar cleanup campaign. According to a 1995 report issued by the Office of the U.S. Secretary of Defense, a large number of contaminants were present in the soil. Substances that were removed includedasbestos as well as cyanide, heavy metals, PCBs, pesticides and petroleum products.
The Navy and Asbestos
Asbestos was used extensively throughout the shipbuilding industry (both government and private) as a flame retardant between 1930 and 1980. Because of the seriousness of shipboard fires on the open seas, asbestos insulation was applied to engines, turbines, pipes and conduits, fire doors and bulkheads.
Asbestos exposure was long known to have serious health consequences; it can lead to illnesses like asbestosis, a scaring of the lungs, or pleural plaques, as well as a number of fatal forms of asbestos cancer, including lung cancer and mesothelioma. as far back as the 1920s, it had been noted that asbestos workers had substantially shorter life spans than the general public. By 1931, the British government started to regulate asbestos levels in U.K. factories.
One reason that similar regulations were not enacted in the U.S. was due primarily to the fact that starting in the mid-1930s, the federal government became the largest buyer of asbestos. In September 1934, the passenger ship S.S. Morro Castle caught fire at sea, resulting in the deaths of 124 passengers and crew members. Under pressure from marine industry lobbyists, the U.S. Senate held several hearings in which few medical studies regarding asbestos were shown. As a result, it became federal policy to promote the use of asbestos throughout the shipbuilding industry.
In the days immediately following the Pearl Harbor attack, the Navy’s primary concern was to restore the Pacific Fleet as quickly as possible. Industrial safety was not a priority in the wake of a national emergency. Eventually, the U.S. government issued safety guidelines in 1943 which recommended that shipyard workers wear respirators; however, these were not enforced until thirty years later.
To the present day, the U.S. Navy denies any liability in the issue of asbestos-related illnesses. Most defendants in such asbestos lawsuits are the corporations that not only produced the substance, but aggressively marketed asbestos products while conspiring to suppress all evidence of its dangers.