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Decades of Denial and Deceit
Part 1: The Navy hunkers down

By BILL BURKE, The Virginian-Pilot
© May 8, 2001

In the early 1970s, as ships returning from the Vietnam War steamed into the Norfolk Naval Shipyard, asbestos workers in Shop 56 performed a time-honored ritual.

Using their brick hammers and their hands, they stripped away old asbestos insulation so that other workers could repair engines, boilers and reactors.

After the repairs had been made, they turned on band saws and took up keyhole saws and shears. Then, amid a familiar haze of white dust, they installed new insulation, just as they had for more than three decades, through two previous wars and the Cold War.

But that ritual was about to end.

Asbestos, hailed centuries earlier as the ``magic mineral,'' had been demonized. Cultural, medical, economic and legal realities converged during a decade of enlightenment regarding health hazards in the American work place. Asbestos became synonymous with death and disease.

Medical experts were making public ever more frightening discoveries about the links between asbestos and cancer. They predicted an epidemic of tens of thousands of asbestos cancer deaths, especially among workers who toiled in the cramped, dusty confines aboard ships under construction or repair.

The Navy had a huge stake in asbestos reform. The service used 298 asbestos-containing products in shipbuilding, according to Navy documents, and it would take years, and millions of dollars, to safely remove and replace the insulation material from its fleet of more than 500 ships.

So the Navy hunkered down, resisting asbestos reforms in court and delaying the removal of asbestos from its ships. According to interviews, memos and court documents:

The Navy imposed a ban on use of asbestos on all new ships in 1973, then violated that ban for at least five years.

After the Occupational Safety and Health Administration set the first standards for asbestos exposure in the work force in 1971, the Navy and other major users of asbestos products waged a court fight against organized labor's efforts to make the standards more stringent. The unions believed OSHA's asbestos standards were still hazardous for workers.

Some naval shipyards allowed workers to continue using asbestos with minimal restrictions, and new requirements for workers to wear respirators were only loosely enforced.

Shipyards continued to allow the training of new asbestos-insulation workers in 1975, two years after the Navy's ban on new-ship asbestos installation was imposed.

At one point, the Norfolk Naval Shipyard in Portsmouth tried to muzzle shipyard workers who tried to bring asbestos-disease lawsuits.

Even today, the Navy refuses to discuss its past asbestos policies. The service apparently has never conducted a comprehensive study to determine the magnitude of asbestos disease among sailors and shipyard workers.

Thomas Dixon, a former supervisor of the welding ship at Norfolk Naval Shipyard, says that in about 1977, a memo ordered workers to place all asbestos products in biohazard bags for disposal. Photo by Steve Earley / The Virginian-Pilot.
Thomas Dixon of Norfolk, who at the time was supervisor of the welding shop at the naval shipyard in Portsmouth, says that in about 1977, managers circulated a memo ordering workers to place all asbestos products in yellow plastic biohazard bags for disposal.

Dixon, 79, says the memo arrived not long after one of his welders, Frances Gwaltney, an asbestos cancer victim, filed a lawsuit July 5, 1977, against asbestos manufacturers.

Officials at the Portsmouth yard were so concerned about litigation that in June 1978 they issued a memo prohibiting employees from talking to civilian lawyers about asbestos disease. A federal judge in Norfolk, however, struck down the gag order, asserting that it violated the workers' First Amendment rights.

Asbestos-control policies and procedures at the nation's oldest Navy yard apparently were the poorest of the nation's eight then-active shipyards, according to interviews and court documents.

Michael Montgomery, an attorney representing an asbestos manufacturer, said during a 1979 court hearing in Norfolk that the Portsmouth yard had the worst asbestos-control record of any naval shipyard inspected by Navy investigators in the late 1960s.

Quoting from an inspector's report, he said the floors in the pipe-coverers' shop was so thick with asbestos residue that they ``looked as if they hadn't been swept in 20 years.''

At yards in New York, Boston, Philadelphia and California, unions employed hygienists and epidemiologists who forged alliances with universities to address the problems of asbestos hazards in the work place, says Sheldon Samuels, former head of industrial health for organized labor in the United States and a former government health official.

The unions at those yards also set up training regimens and persuaded the Navy to sponsor programs to instruct hygienists in asbestos safety issues.

But that was not happening in Virginia, and the naval shipyard in Portsmouth lagged behind its counterparts on issues of occupational safety, Samuels says.

Virginia is a right-to-work state, where unions historically have played minimal roles in health reform. Samuels says there were no compacts between unions and university health professionals to address asbestos diseases at the Portsmouth yard in the 1970s.

Compliance with new federal safety standards in the Portsmouth yard came slowly, he says.

Union safety officials ``made more trips to Portsmouth in those years than to any other shipyard,'' he says.