Swan Island

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Swan Island is one of the main industrial areas of Portland, Oregon. Located near the confluence of the Willamette and Columbia rivers, it is a natural location for port and shipbuilding facilities. It is here that industrialist Henry J. Kaiser established three of his seven West Coast shipyards just prior to World War II.

Two of the yards, located just across the Columbia in Vancouver, Washington, produced the famous “Liberty Ships” and the Casablanca Class escort carriers. The third, located on Swan Island, was the production facility for the T2 tankers built between December 1942 and November 1945; these were copies of tankers built for the Sun Oil Company, and were thus known as “Sun” Tankers (3).

1946 to the Present

Kaiser had constructed his Portland facility on land belonging to the Port of the City of Portland, with the assistance of $23 million dollars from the U.S. Marine Corps. After the war, the City of Portland bought Kaiser’s facility and operated it as a “common-user” ship repair facility. In turn, this was leased to a number of marine repair and construction firms. The city eventually sold the former Kaiser facilities to Cascade General, Inc. in 1999. This company continues to operate the shipyard today.

National Emergency

The Kaiser Swan Island Shipyard was considered an “emergency yard,” and one of four around the country built specifically for the manufacture of the T2 “Sun” Tankers. Because of the danger of fire aboard these ships (a danger that was exacerbated by combat conditions), shipbuilders felt it necessary to use the fire-proof material wherever possible. Asbestos insulation was installed along bulkheads and between decks and wrapped around the some thirteen miles of pipes in each ship; it was used to pack boilers, turbines and heaters. For nearly five decades, asbestos blankets and molds were used to shield cabins and other shipboard components.

The conspiracy to suppress health-related information by the asbestos industry was exposed in 1977. However, there are strong indications that the U.S. government, fearing labor unrest, also chose to withhold information. In a 1941 memo entitled “Asbestos,” U.S. Navy Chief of Preventive Medicine C.S. Stephens stated that asbestos workers were not being properly protected, but that President Roosevelt himself had suggested that sharing such information “might not be the best policy”.

In 1943, the government finally issued safety standards suggesting that shipyard workers wear respirators when working with asbestos. The shipbuilding industry generally ignored these standards until the Occupational Safety and Health Administration began enforcing them in the 1970’s.

The reason ultimately came down to money. According to former shipyard worker Charles Ay, who has testified in a number of legal actions against the asbestos industry, “…it was a lot cheaper to let them work unprotected. The companies figured, sure, some of the workers will die, and fewer will sue us – it is still cheaper than buying protective gear” (9).

Anyone whose jobs took them below decks for any length of time runs the highest risks from asbestos exposure, including the chance of developing asbestosis, a form of scaring in the lungs brought on by inhaling the asbestos fibers, or even one of several deadly forms of asbestos cancer, such as lung cancer or mesothelioma. This includes welders, marine carpenters, painters, construction workers and machine operators.