The Charleston Naval Shipyard (also called Charleston Navy Yard) began operations in 1901 and made shipbuilding contributions to multiple U.S. wars until its closing in 1996. Located in Charleston, South Carolina, the yard served two primary functions: It was a decommissioning and storage location as well as an overhaul facility for ships and submarines.
The shipyard flourished during World War I, but there was much uncertainty for the facility during the great depression until the start of World War II. In 1932, the facility employed less than 250 workers. But by 1943, with World War II in full effect, the yard was employing almost 26,000 workers.
At a time when asbestos-containing material was mandatory on all Navy ships, the Charleston Naval Shipyard became a significant source for asbestos exposure. Asbestos was noted for its fireproofing and insulating properties, two valued characteristics in shipbuilding. Unfortunately, exposure to asbestos can cause a number of respiratory conditions, such as lung cancer, asbestosis and mesothelioma.
By the late 1990s, residents living near the old shipyard expressed concern over the growing number of pleural cancers being diagnosed in the area. After an evaluation by the Department of Health and Environmental Control, researchers found that pleural cancers in the region were four times more than the expected incidence rate. They also discovered two-thirds of all pleural cancers, including pleural mesothelioma, were attributed to former Charleston Naval Shipyard workers who were exposed to asbestos.
Even though the U.S. Navy understood asbestos was hazardous, asbestos-containing materials remained a significant part of ship construction throughout much of the 20th century. It wasn’t until 1978 that the Navy released its “Controlled Procedure for the Removal of Asbestos Containing Materials” document at the Charleston Naval Shipyard. The report outlined steps for safely performing asbestos abatement on ships.
Since the closing of the yard in 1996, residents of nearby communities have stressed their concern about the redevelopment of the site and possible exposures to toxic substances like asbestos. About 340 acres of the site is currently being revitalized into a sustainable urban hub for the city of North Charleston. Construction broke ground for the site in 2005 and it’s being called The Navy Yard at Noisette.
In an air monitoring study conducted by the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control, air sampling was performed during the redevelopment project to ensure a safe environment for nine local neighborhoods, including:
Neighborhoods included in the study:
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From 1901 to 1996, the Charleston Naval Shipyard provided jobs for tens of thousands of shipyard workers and carried out various projects for the Navy. The yard built a total of 229 ships during World War II. After the war and when shipbuilding declined, the Navy assigned the yard to become a submarine overhaul facility.
During the Korean War, the Charleston Naval Shipyard was asked to take a break from submarines and increase its production once again. The yard activated 44 vessels and converted 27 for active duty during the war. Yet production declined once more following the Vietnam War and the yard was eventually closed on April 1, 1996.
Former U.S. Army Capt. Aaron Munz is the director of the Veterans Department at The Mesothelioma Center, and he is a VA-accredited Claims Agent. He received the Bronze Star in 2004 during Operation Iraqi Freedom. Munz has intimate knowledge of how veterans were exposed to asbestos because he served under similar conditions.
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