World’s First Nuclear Powered Aircraft Carrier Had Onboard Asbestos Team

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The USS Enterprise (CVN 65) was launched September 24, 1960, by Newport News Shipbuilding and Drydock Co., Newport News, Virginia and commissioned November 25, 1961. In 2012, after 51 years of service, she was decommissioned.

Known as the Big E or CVN 65, this 1,123 ft. military vessel was the longest warship in the history of the world. She served longer than any other U.S. aircraft carrier, she was the world’s first nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, and she even had an onboard asbestos team.

Before the 1970s, asbestos was considered a wondrous mineral thanks to amazing insulation properties and superior resistance to fire. Simply put, it absolutely will not burn, says, the nation’s largest military and veteran membership organization.

Virtually every ship commissioned by the United States Navy between 1930 and about 1970 contained several tons of asbestos insulation in the engine room, along the miles of pipe aboard the ship, and in the walls and doors that required fireproofing, according to the organization. The more than 100,000 sailors that called the Big E home during her commission, and the men who manned and repaired ships in Navy shipyards were prime candidates for asbestos exposure, a fact borne out by the disease statistics.

Big E’s onboard asbestos team was responsible for removing old and worn asbestos insulation and replacing it with new insulation. This process was likely repeated several times between 1960 and 1979, along with other major upgrades and repairs. This means that during these times, the team was exposed to asbestos at a higher degree than all others.

According to US, earlier repair and overhaul trips took place in:

  • November 2, 1964: After an historic 65-day, 30,216-mile voyage around the world, accomplished without a single refueling or replenishment, Big E entered the dry-dock at Newport News Shipbuilding and Dry Dock Company for first refueling and overhaul.
  • June 30, 1966: Following a record-breaking first combat tour in which 13,020 combat sorties had been made and 8,000 tons of ordnance had been dumped on targets in South and North Vietnam, Big E moved to San Francisco Bay Naval Shipyard at Hunters Point for repair and overhaul.
  • July 29, 1968: USS Enterprise arrived at Puget Sound Naval Shipyard in Bremerton, Washington for a two-month overhaul.
  • August 12, 1969: Months after a Zuni missile detonated during the arming of an F-4 Phantom, causing eight explosions and a large fire that killed more than 20 crewmen and injured more than 80, and destroyed 15 aircraft, Big E arrived at Norfolk Naval Shipyard, Virginia for another refueling and overhaul.

There were many other repair and overhaul trips during Big E’s half-century of service. However, overexposure to asbestos was much more widespread in her earlier years due to the lack of awareness about the dangers of asbestos. As the military and other industries began to learn more about the dangers of asbestos, the fanfare surrounding asbestos gradually shifted to fear.

During Big E’s later years, Emergency Asbestos Rip-Out Teams (EARTs) were responsible for making sure the ship’s insulation and lagging were asbestos free during deployment. This is a far cry from repairing and replacing it. According to EART member Machinist’s Mate 3rd Class Derek Begay, “We assemble underway whenever asbestos is discovered. A lot of the crew don’t know what we do. We come and isolate the area and remove whatever insulation needs to be removed. And we repair the place where the insulation was as well.” While the crew is taught to avoid contact with asbestos, says, these sailors are trained and qualified to handle asbestos safely.

While today’s regulations regarding asbestos removal help protect individuals handling the task, regulations were not sound during Big E’s prime. A number of crewmembers died from asbestos inhalation. According to a 2013 TIME Magazine article one woman wishes she could have attended Enterprise’s deactivation ceremony. “I would have like to have attended on behalf of my uncle,” she says. He worked on the Enterprise when she was first constructed. He insulated pipes with asbestos. He died in 1974 from the asbestos.

The Inactivation Ceremony for the USS Enterprise (CVN 65) was held on December 1, 2012. The ship remained at Naval Station Norfolk for approximately 6 months in order to off-load equipment. The next step involved moving the ship to dock at Huntington Ingalls Industries Newport News Shipyard (HII-NNSY) for inactivation. According to the United States Navy, this process (the inactivation phase) takes approximately 4 years.

In 2016, the ship will be towed to Puget Sound Naval Shipyard and Intermediate Maintenance Facility (PSNS&IMF) for dismantlement and recycling, the final phase.

For more information about the USS Enterprise (CVN 65), please visit the United States Navy information page here.


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