The Newport News Shipyard officially opened in 1886 and was the first dry dock in the world. It was formerly known as the Chesapeake Dry Dock and Construction Company and started out mainly building gunboats. However, it quickly grew into a much larger operation. It became an independent company in 1996 and is currently the largest non-government, privately owned shipyard within the United States.
Newport News Shipbuilding designs and constructs commercial and naval ships. They also handle the majority of repair work needed for naval ships today and refuel nuclear powered naval submarines and aircraft carriers. Carriers and submarines are now their main source of company income.
The Newport News Shipyard became incredibly active building naval ships during the time of World War I with business dropping off after the war’s end. During World War II it was again a very active shipbuilding yard and grew to its largest size in 1943 with around 31,000 employees. Between the two world wars, they worked on more commercial type projects including yacht building. The first nuclear submarine was built there in 1960.
Asbestos is a dangerous substance that was once used in great quantity at the Newport News Shipyard as well as many other shipbuilding sites. It causes mesothelioma, a rare and deadly form of asbestos cancer, and other diseases such as asbestosis. The Navy used large amounts of asbestos building their naval ships for many years. The use of asbestos was at its highest during World War I and II as well as in the post cold war era and was still used up until its ban in the 1970s
Employees that worked in the shipyard as plumbers, pipe fitters, insulation installers and removers, electricians, welders and sheet metal workers during the time asbestos was used are the most at risk for malignant mesothelioma and other asbestos related disease. It was often used in boilers, tanks and ceiling tiles and for the insulation of hot water pipes that were used aboard naval ships. Additional exposure may have resulted from the power plant there as well. The area has since undergone extensive cleanup and most asbestos has been cleared from the area. However, this does not undo the damage to the thousands already exposed, many of which have already died. Many more will likely continue to contract disease in the future.
Douglas Locke was an industrial electrician at the Newport News Shipyard for many years and died of mesothelioma. The lawsuit due to his death was the first of its kind and alerted the public of the hazards of previous asbestos exposure. The shipyard was sued for concealing the dangers of asbestos from its employees and for continuing to use the dangerous substance even after its deadly potential was known. This was the first such victory for many who were also seeking justice due to exposure at the shipyard.
The most recent lawsuit regarding exposure at the Newport News Shipyard is due to the death of Vaugn Oney. He worked there from 1963-1973 and also died Mesothelioma. His widow was awarded $9.25 million dollars from the asbestos suppliers John Crane, Inc. and Garlock Sealing Technologies for his death and suffering.