Shipbuilding, one of the oldest industries in Maine, is a tradition that dates back more than 400 years. Shipbuilding also ranks among the most dangerous industries in America for asbestos exposure. This mineral was once considered vital to the building and operation of seaworthy vessels.
It’s a significant reason over 450 Maine residents have died of malignant mesothelioma. With more than 200 miles of the Atlantic Ocean coastline, Maine’s shipbuilding industry has provided a profitable way of life.
Much of the asbestos exposure in shipbuilding occurred before the turn of the century. The long latency period associated with asbestos-related diseases still leaves many alive today at risk of developing a condition.
Like many states, Maine has several regulations regarding the handling and disposal of toxic asbestos. Among those laws is one that requires the Department of Environmental Protection to be notified whenever work will include a piece of asbestos at least three square feet in size. It also stipulates that licensed professionals must do the job.
Maine also has its share of chemical plants and paper mills. These job sites were once known for their extensive use of asbestos materials. No state laws require the removal or repair of asbestos-containing materials, except in schools.
In June 2020, a museum and library in Augusta, Maine, closed for major repairs, including an asbestos removal project. All items on the museum’s main floor had to be safely stored while professionals removed the asbestos to prevent exposure and contamination. The project is likely to reach completion in 2023.
Maine’s Occupations and Areas at Risk
Asbestos was never actively mined in Maine. There is an asbestos mining prospect in the western part of the state and an elevated asbestos-related illness rate surrounding the area. There are a few other natural asbestos deposits in the state. Maine also borders Quebec, Canada, where asbestos mines operated for generations.
Maine has its share of occupations that put workers at risk of asbestos exposure.
- Paper mills
- Power plants
- Military bases
- Iron foundries
Power plant employees often worked around machinery and equipment lined with asbestos insulation. Turbines and generators, along with the gaskets, valves and pumps, were covered in asbestos, which insulated those parts against heat and possible fire. Paper mills that used heavy machinery to turn sheets of pulp into paper exposed workers to asbestos through the insulation materials that prevented overheating.
Job sites in Maine where asbestos exposure is documented:
- Brunswick Naval Air Station (Brunswick)
- Dow Air Force Base (Bangor)
- Sanford Textile Mill (Sanford)
- Portsmouth Naval Shipyard (Kittery)
- Great Northern Paper Company (Lincoln)
- New England Shipbuilding Corporation (Portland)
- Rumford Paper Mill (Rumford Falls)
- Oxford Paper Company (Rumford)
- Yankee Nuclear Power Plant (Wiscasset)
- Central Main Power Plant (Lewiston)
- Bath Iron Works (Bath)
- Union Chemicals Company (South Hope)
- International Paper Company (Androscoggin)
- New England Insulation Company (Bangor)
- Loring Air Force Base (Limestone)
In 2018, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency expressed concerns about demolishing the Stenton Trust Mill complex in Sanford, Maine because of asbestos contamination. The mill caught fire in 2017, and the EPA came in to assess the damage, which is when they found asbestos. The EPA held a town meeting to discuss the necessary asbestos removal project before demolition.
Superfund Sites in Maine
There are 14 industrial or military sites in Maine placed on the National Priorities List (NPL) as part of the Superfund law. Congress passed the law in 1980 in response to the improper disposal of hazardous substances. Only after a preliminary investigation indicates that federal involvement is warranted is a site placed on the list.
Asbestos is a contaminant listed at the Brunswick Naval Air Station and the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard in Kittery. It’s also present at the Eastern Surplus Company in Meddybemps. In addition to Superfund sites, Maine is also home to a Brownfield site contaminated with asbestos. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), brownfields may contain a hazardous substance, pollutant or contaminant. Maine faces several challenges with asbestos present in the state.
Demolition of an EPA brownfield, the Forster Manufacturing Co. factory in Wilton, was halted in July 2011. The delay occurred after airborne tests revealed the building contained high levels of asbestos. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) performed the tests. Results showed higher than permissible levels of asbestos for workers to be present. About 10 demolition workers were asked to leave the job site.
Other people may have suffered exposure at the factory before demolition. A fire occurred in the plant just before demolition started. The police officer and firefighters who responded to the fire could have faced exposure to airborne asbestos. Untouched asbestos in the factory posed no threat to the public. The demolition and subsequent fire released asbestos into the air. An expert who worked in Maine for 30 years said it was the worst asbestos site he had ever seen.
More than $100,000 has been spent to abate asbestos in the factory, and more must be abated before demolition can continue. The town is using a series of grants to pay for cleanup and will likely apply for a separate brownfield cleanup grant to finish the job.