The Norfolk Naval Shipyard (NNSY) in Portsmouth, Virginia is the oldest naval shipyard and is now the largest naval base in the world. It was created by Andrew Sprowl in 1767 for the British and was named the Gosport Shipyard in colonial times after the British town of Gosport. In 1775, the Colony of Virginia took over the base at the beginning of the American Revolution, and Sprowl retreated across the ocean on a British ship. The new country of the United States of America gave President Washington authority to fund the shipyard for warship production. The name was changed to the Norfolk Naval Shipyard in 1862.
The Norfolk Naval Shipyard built naval ships for nine major U.S. wars and has also built many scientific exploration ships throughout its history as well. During World War II, they repaired 6,850 ships for the U.S. and its allies and built thirty major naval ships. They had the largest number of workers at this time, which reached at total of around 43,000 people. After the war, the shipyard performed repairs and modernization projects on existing ships. The shipyard gained nuclear capabilities in the 1960s, which were used to overhaul submarines.
Asbestos was widely used in naval shipbuilding from the 1930s through the mid 1970s at this and all other naval shipyards. Thousands received direct and indirect exposure from the building and repairing of ships in which asbestos was used. Many were also exposed during ship tear outs. There are still ships used within the Navy today with asbestos that pose a risk to those exposed. Asbestos was used in many naval ship parts including brakes, clutches, gaskets, floor coverings, cements and many other older building materials.
Thousands of World War II Navy veterans exposed have died while others still remain at high risk due to their exposure to asbestos during this time because of the high amount of its use. There are many lawsuits and claims that have arisen from asbestos related diseases including claims against the Norfolk Naval Shipyard. As an example, Mesothelioma is one of several deadly and rare forms of asbestos cancer that has a proven link to the inhalation of asbestos dust particles.
The Navy officially banned the use of asbestos for shipbuilding in 1973 but ignored it’s own ban and continued to use what was known to be a hazardous material for at least five more years. New asbestos workers even continued to be trained for work with hazardous asbestos materials for another five years beyond the time of the Navy ban. The Norfolk Naval Shipyard tried to quiet shipyard workers about the dangers of asbestos exposure and highly discouraged asbestos disease related lawsuits.
In 1979, an attorney acting on behalf of an asbestos supplier stated that Naval Investigators found that the Norfolk Naval Shipyard had the worst control record of any shipyard in the entire Navy and had thick asbestos dust that remained caked on the ground and floor of all shipyard areas. The Navy still refuses to speak of its past policies on asbestos and has never done thorough studies to determine the extent of malignant mesothelioma and other asbestos diseases that are now prominent among sailors and shipyard workers previously exposed.