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From the Hoover Dam to the Channel Tunnel to the rebuilding of Iraq, Bechtel Corporation has played a hand in a long list of notable engineering projects. With 49,000 employees working in 50 countries and $30.8 billion in revenues in 2010, Betchel is the largest engineering company and the third-largest privately owned company in the United States. Given the company’s massive power and political connections, some say it is also one of the most controversial.

Bechtel Corporation was founded by Warren A. Bechtel, a cattle rancher-turned-railroad worker who in the early 1900s built a contracting business that specialized in building railroads and highways. The young company won several road-building contracts in California and in 1925 incorporated as W.A. Bechtel Company. In the 1930s, the company’s reputation would grow stronger as it took on complex projects like the construction of the Hoover Dam and the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge. Bechtel joined forces with John McCone’s engineering company in 1937, forming an engineering/construction firm called the Bechtel-McCone Company.

Bechtel Corporation Company History

During World War II, Bechtel was commissioned to build hundreds of cargo ships and oil tankers for the Navy, and was later awarded contracts to build the Alaskan-Canadian Highway and a Canadian oil pipeline, though the pipeline was deemed a failure and abandoned after just 11 months. After the war, W.A. Bechtel Company bought out John McCone’s share and renamed itself Bechtel Corporation.

Bechtel became more involved in oil pipeline building in the years that followed, building pipelines and much of the infrastructure of modern-day Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. The company also became more active in energy engineering, and in 1956 won a contract to build the world’s second commercial nuclear power reactor in Illinois. The Dresden-1 was completed in 1960. The company also diversified into areas like development, finance and investments, which helped expand Bechtel’s reach into other countries.

Political controversy has plagued Bechtel in recent decades. In 1988, Bechtel signed a contract to build a chemical plant in Iraq – a controversial move, as Saddam Hussein had recently been condemned for using poisonous gas on thousands of Kurds. (The Gulf War of 1990 prevented that project from being completed.) A Wall Street Journal article reported that Bechtel had close ties to a rebel leader in the First Congo War in central Africa, and had provided him with maps and information that could help the rebels in war. And in 1999, protests erupted in Bolivia when that country’s government hired Bechtel to privatize a city’s water supply, a move that sent water prices skyrocketing and left families in turmoil.

Today Bechtel owns and operates power plants, oil refineries, water systems, and airports in several countries including the U.S., Turkey and the United Kingdom. The company is headquartered in San Francisco’s Financial District, where it continues to be led by the Bechtel family.

Bechtel Corporation, Asbestos Exposure Risk and Mesothelioma

In many of Bechtel Corporation’s job sites, workers made use of a naturally occurring mineral known as asbestos. Asbestos had found its way into numerous products and job sites since the Industrial Revolution because of its many attractive qualities: It is strong, versatile, a natural insulator and fire retardant. And because it was so plentiful, it was also inexpensive.

At the time, workers didn’t know that working with asbestos was also harmful to their health – but in the 1970s, the public began to realize the health risks involved. Exposure to airborne asbestos particles can cause serious respiratory diseases like mesothelioma, an inoperable – and sadly, fatal – form of lung cancer. Asbestos becomes truly hazardous when the mineral’s particles are released into the air, something that tends to happen when products age and break down, or when asbestos products are cut.

Workers at Bechtel Corporation job sites, such as power plants, refineries and construction sites, have said they were exposed to asbestos in thermal and electrical insulation, flooring materials, textiles, gaskets, packing materials, cement products and/or other products. All of these materials put workers at a great occupational risk that compounded with each day on the job.

As an engineering company, Bechtel also continues to perform clean-ups of buildings and sites where asbestos is present. If these clean-ups are not properly handled, workers can again be put at great risk. In 1996, asbestos dust was reportedly found at a Bechtel highway construction project in Boston. And in 1999, the company was fined for asbestos violations at a work site in Idaho.

Products used on Bechtel Corporation jobs sites that are thought to have contained asbestos include (but are not limited to):

  • Thermal and Electrical Insulation
  • Flooring Materials
  • Textiles
  • Gaskets
  • Packing Materials
  • Cement Products
  • Power Plant Materials

Occupations at Risk for Asbestos Exposure

People at the greatest risk of exposure to asbestos are those who worked extensively on Bechtel Corporation job sites prior to the 1970s, when asbestos was largely banned from products in the United States. These workers could have been power plant workers, demolition workers, electricians, foremen, construction workers, engineers, pipefitters, and insulators. Virtually anyone who spent time near asbestos-laden products on Bechtel sites could have been affected, whether or not they worked directly with any asbestos products. Some workers recall that it was sometimes Bechtel’s subcontractors who used asbestos products; however, just being in an enclosed space with the airborne asbestos dust is enough to compromise a person’s health. It is also possible that workers’ loved ones were affected by asbestos dust through secondhand contact, if the worker brought home the particles on dusty work clothes, shoes and hair.

Recent News

In February 2011, during Libya’s revolution, an NBC investigative reporter wrote that a chief U.S. diplomat had been hired as a vice president for Bechtel and put in charge of acquiring new business in the African nation.

As of March 2011, Bechtel Corporation has been named as a defendant in numerous lawsuits by people who say their health, or the health of a loved one, was damaged by exposure to asbestos on Bechtel job sites.

Written By

Tara Strand Senior Content Writer

Tara Strand specializes in researching and writing about asbestos, raising awareness and advocating for a ban.

Full Bio Editorial Guidelines
Reviewed By

Jennifer Lucarelli Legal Advisor and Contributor

Jennifer Lucarelli is a partner at the law firm of Early, Lucarelli, Sweeney & Meisenkothen, specializing in asbestos litigation.

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