The Swan Island Shipyard began as one of Henry J. Kaiser's seven West Coast shipbuilding factories. He built the facility with $23 million from the U.S. Marine Corps.
The island's location near the confluence of the Willamette and Columbia Rivers made it a natural choice for building T2 tankers and repairing damaged naval vessels during World War II.
Between 1942 and 1945, 153 vessels were launched from the shipyard's eight bays. Unlike the other Kaiser Shipyards, Swan Island has remained in use. The facility was built on land owned by the Port of the City of Portland, which purchased the buildings and operations from Kaiser. Repair and building operations continued under lease to different marine repair and construction firms until 1999.
The Port Authority sold the Kaiser facilities to Cascade General, Inc in 1999. This company operates the shipyards today. T-2 tanker production continues to this day as well as one of the largest repair facilities on the West Coast.
Because tankers are especially vulnerable to fire, asbestos insulation continued to be used extensively up until the ban in the 1980s. Workers in the Swan Island Shipyard faced routine exposure to this material for many years. Workers installed asbestos insulation along bulkheads and between decks. Up to 13 miles of pipes per ship were wrapped with asbestos. It was also packed around boilers, turbines and heaters. In addition, compressed asbestos molds and asbestos blankets were common shields around cabins.
The problems associated with asbestos exposure were known by the government as early as 1941. This resulted in a recommendation that shipyard workers should wear respirators when working with asbestos. The recommendation was generally ignored because providing respirators was costly and the dangers weren't considered significant.
These dangers have now been proven to be significant! Several cancers have been linked to asbestos exposure: mesothelioma, lung cancer, and other cancers. Lung tissue scarring known as asbestosis is also a common ailment which reduces lung capacity and increases the risk of asbestos-related cancers.
For over 30 years, Swan Island Shipyard workers worked without protection. In the last 20 years, at least 862 deaths have been linked to asbestos complications. Anyone who has worked with asbestos in the Swan Island Shipyard should have their lungs carefully evaluated, as symptoms can take from 20 to 50 years to appear. A dry cough, tightness in the chest, and other symptoms which can be mistaken for other ailments could be early warning signs of trouble. Make sure that your physician knows that you were exposed to asbestos, so appropriate treatment options can be pursued.