In the final year of World War II (1945), a report from the Shipyard Safety Conference was known to then-owner Puget Sound Bridge and Dredging executives. The report detailed the health risks of asbestos to shipyard workers.

But asbestos continued to be used extensively as an insulator and mixing agent in maritime work in the Duwamish area of Washington State. Executives at Lockheed admitted later that no one passed these warnings along to shipyard or construction workers. Court records would later show that no precautions or warnings were ever issued by Lockheed to employees exposed to asbestos.

Shoreline of the Duwamish waterway
View of the Duwamish Waterway near Seattle, Washington.

Lockheed landed a host of defense contracts for some Knox class frigates in the 1960s and seven platform dock ships, including the USS Denver and USS Juneau. Workers at Shipyard 2 built Coast Guard icebreakers and submarine tenders in the 1970s, at the height of the shipyard’s activities. This kind of work may have exposed workers to moderate or high concentrations of asbestos.

The International Journal of Environmental Health Research published a review of medical literature on the risk of asbestos-related cancer among sailors in 2021. It reviewed a 2020 study describing seafarers from five Nordic countries who have more than double the risk of developing mesothelioma compared to the general public.

According to a 2017 study published in the Archives of Environmental & Occupational Health, shipyard workers exposed to a moderate concentration of asbestos were about four times more likely to die of mesothelioma. Those exposed to high levels were more than seven times more likely to get mesothelioma.

Asbestos-Related Lawsuits

In 1990, the Lockheed company successfully reversed a finding of the Department of Labor’s Benefits Review Board that it had caused the death of a worker because of asbestos exposure. Lockheed successfully argued that Todd Shipyards, one of the workers previous employers, was responsible for failing to remove all of the asbestos present in the air and gaskets.

Lehman Brothers, in a 2002 review of potential litigation against major corporations, noted that Lockheed claimed there were no pending asbestos suits anticipated at that time. Because mesothelioma or other asbestos-linked conditions may take decades to develop, there’s no guarantee another major suit won’t occur with a new diagnosis.

In 2009, a Texas man (a Union Carbide employee) sued Lockheed and 64 other co-defendants in a suit for asbestos exposure. Lawsuits against many of Lockheed’s subcontractors (or their holding companies) are pending, with the appearance of asbestosis and even mesothelioma, decades after exposure.

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Father and Son Sue Lockheed

Among the cases involving asbestos at Lockheed’s Shipyard 2, the story of a father and son – Reuben Arnold and Daniel Arnold – captured the realities of a career at Lockheed. The storied history of Lockheed included this sort of family inheritance, where generations of Washington State residents boasted about being involved in the shipbuilding trades. Until the late 1970s, Shipyard 2 had continued to grow. A large part of that growth included working with insulation, but Lockheed didn’t develop a written policy for handling the risks of asbestos exposure until 1980. This failure was at the heart of the lawsuit by the Arnolds.

In his extensive time at Shipyard 2, Daniel Arnold said it was not unusual in being unaware of the risks of asbestos. In fact, testimony at the trial against Lockheed recalled times through the 1960s and 1970s of “workers actually playing with asbestos, making it into ‘snowballs.'”

Shipyards in the distance on Duwamish Waterway
Shipyards on the Duwamish Waterway

Both Rueben and Daniel eventually contracted asbestosis. As with many generational sufferers of asbestos exposure, they didn’t learn of their own risks of asbestos exposure until more than a decade after exposure had occurred.

Daniel, an insulator, wore a respirator and changed his clothes after having contact with asbestos. But medical evidence showed that the virulent dust had been carried home year after year on the clothes of Reuben, Daniel’s father, contaminating their home. Daniel was eventually diagnosed with mesothelioma, and so was his father.

Reuben Arnold died of mesothelioma in March 2008. Lockheed, at first, succeeded in a summary judgment in a lawsuit brought by Reuben’s widow, along with Daniel. A Washington state court of appeals then reversed the summary judgment. The trial court, however, again granted summary judgment, and the Arnolds appealed again. Meanwhile, Daniel succumbed to his asbestos-related conditions in late Fall 2010. The appeals court, in early 2011, approved the summary judgment in Lockheed’s favor.

Lockheed Shipbuilding Sold, Becomes Superfund Site

The Shipyard 2 land sat idle until being purchased by the Port Authority of Seattle in 1992. Left behind were concerns over discarded asbestos and a host of potential chemical contaminants (polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), organic compounds, mercury and other heavy metals). Sediments in the Duwamish and associated landfills were suspected to be at unsafe levels.

Lockheed completed a merger with Martin-Marietta in 1994, and the reformed business (Lockheed-Martin) now constitutes the leading single corporate recipient of federal defense dollars. The company promises to continue studying ways to help in cleaning up its former shipyard.

In March 2007, the EPA added Shipyard 2 to the Superfund National Priorities List, naming the site “Lockheed West Seattle”. A remedial investigation and feasibility study was conducted, and then a work plan for cleaning the site was presented in 2010. Cleanup and remedial construction began in 2011 and should be completed sometime around the year 2012.