In 1767, the Norfolk Naval Shipyard was established, making it the oldest existing shipyard in the U.S. to focus on ship repair and overhaul. The yard’s mission is to support the Naval Fleet by providing logistical support; overhauling and repairing ships; manufacturing materials and researching to develop and test new materials; and providing services and material to other units.
From 1940 until 1945, the yard repaired, altered and converted 6,850 naval vessels. It also built 101 new ships and landing craft for the Naval Fleet and manufactured products used by both naval installations and the forces aboard Navy ships.
The level of support that Norfolk provided for the war effort resulted in the creation of landfills containing pollutants like asbestos-containing materials used in the conversion and overhaul process. The Paradise Creek Landfill, in use from 1945 to 1983, was a disposal area for waste produced from ship salvage operations, abrasive blast grit material, boiler fly, bottom ash, residential trash, and industrial wastewater treatment plant sludge. Another disposal area containing asbestos contaminants is the 1927 landfill located in the southern portion of the main shipyard area, which was in use from 1927 until 1941. Sandblast grit, and fly ash were also dumped in the landfill.
As the oldest existing shipyard in the country, Norfolk Naval Shipyard has a long history of using asbestos materials. The close quarters involved in constructing, overhauling and repairing vessels exposed workers to asbestos, a natural mineral known to cause lung cancer, asbestosis and mesothelioma.
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The level of contamination resulting from asbestos use and the activities performed at the yard made it necessary for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to add it to the National Priorities List. In addition to the conversion and overhaul of ships, the yard also houses industrial shops involved in metal forming, repair and installation of mechanical and electrical equipment, metal fabrication, metal plating, and painting operations.
This type of heavy industry generates vast amounts of waste products that include: asbestos, scrap metal, hydraulic oils, cutting oils and oils contaminated with PCBs, used cleaners, solvents, paint, thinners, residues from sandblasting, battery electrolytes, plating wastes and solutions from cleaning boilers. Former practices for disposing of wastes created by waterfront maintenance of naval vessels included dumping them overboard or onto the ground. Additionally, prior to the use of the industrial waste treatment plant beginning in 1979, shop wastes were sent to storm drains and discharged untreated to the Elizabeth River. Callous safety precautions and the use of toxic materials such as asbestos is what led Norfolk workers to exhibit higher incidence rates of mesothelioma and other diseases.
In a 1991 report prepared by Johns Hopkins University School of Hygiene and Public Health evaluating low-level radiation exposure among shipyard workers who overhaul nuclear propulsion plants in six facilities including Norfolk, the researchers studied the mortality from mesothelioma among this population.
They found that although the number of deaths from cases with confirmed pleural or peritoneal mesothelioma was small because it is a rare form of cancer, the incidence rate was actually higher than in the general population of white males. The researchers also noted that the incidence rate of mesothelioma deaths was higher in radiation exposed workers than in non-exposed workers. This led to the conclusion that nuclear workers held more jobs with the potential for asbestos exposure.
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