Part of the vast Portland Shipyard, Northwest Marine Ironworks made a name for itself as a repair facility for small and medium commercial marine vessels. Northwest opened its doors in the mid 1950s, after Portland Shipyard acquired adjacent land and opened new facilities. Along with the other docks and shipping contractors located at Portland Shipyard, Northwest Marine Ironworks experienced a period of growth and expansion throughout the 1960s and 1970s. But business began to slide as the 1980s dawned, and an oil crisis contributed to the decline of Northwest, until finally the company was purchased by mega shipping concern Southwest Marine in the mid 1980s. In 1993, Southwest left the yard, and the legacy of Northwest ended entirely.
But for the workers once employed by Northwest Marine Ironworks, a legacy of a different kind continues.
Those workers, like other shipbuilders, marine repair specialists, and dock workers employed at various shipyards prior to the mid 1970s, carry with them the results of years of asbestos exposure, as a result of working closely with marine products composed of the potentially deadly fibers.
On its surface, asbestos looks like a manufacturer’s dream material. Highly heat resistant and very resistant to corrosion, the fibrous, silica-based mineral is also flexible, allowing it to be formed and molded to suit a wide variety of applications. And unlike other materials which may lose durability when stretched or manipulated, asbestos has a very high tensile strength, which means it remains strong even when reformed. Asbestos is also widely available and cheap, meaning greater profits for manufacturers.
But behind its seemingly versatile façade are hidden health dangers, which did not become fully evident until the mid 1970s. Apprised of the possible health concerns faced by those exposed to asbestos, the federal government reacted by banning use of the material in manufacturing.
But for those who had already been exposed to the materials, and for those who continued to repair boats containing the materials, the legislation was of little use. During the construction and repair processes, asbestos is manipulated in ways that can cause tiny fibers to break away. Extremely lightweight, the fibers can be easily inhaled by anyone nearby, and once inhaled, asbestos particles due irreparable damage to the lungs and other internal organs, including causing mesothelioma, asbestosis, and lung cancer.
Malignant mesothelioma can take years to become evident. If you were employed by Northwest Marine Ironworks, you should speak with your physician to determine the risks of your exposure as mesothelioma navy cases are most common.