LONG BEACH — Though they say they probably shouldn't have been surprised, labor union officials at the Long Beach Naval Shipyard were taken aback when a shipyard worker approached them about six weeks ago with a handful of gray corrugated asbestos insulation from a furnace in San Pedro Navy housing.
"The employee came to me one day carrying a handful of the stuff and said, 'Why doesn't anybody do anything about this?' " said Joe Walsh, a union chief steward in the shipyard's public works department, which maintains and repairs local Navy housing.
Used in Heating Systems
Officials of the Federal Employees Metal Trades Council, which represents about half of the shipyard's workers, said that September conversation was the first time they have been told that asbestos had been used to insulate heating systems in local Navy housing.
"This just exploded on us," said Walsh. "Everybody's supposed to freeze when they come in contact with this stuff, but most of these housing maintenance guys (weren't told) anything about it."
Walsh said that it wasn't long after that conversation that he heard about Jack West, a plumber who for years apparently had been trying to get his bosses to officially warn Navy housing workers and Navy families about the presence and potential danger of asbestos.
In a recent signed statement to the union, West maintained that in the last 15 years, he and other workers had told shipyard management about the possibility that "we and tenants were being exposed to asbestos."
West, who was unavailable for an interview, said in his statement that his most recent complaint to his foreman last November resulted in no action. "Any warning the crew got was from me," said West.
Shipyard spokesman Gil Bond said that West's complaint probably got lost in "the bowels of the organization" because it went to the wrong official.
Because the Navy housing maintenance crew works from a site off the shipyard, shipyard unions never heard West's many complaints, said Walsh. Nor did shipyard officials respond, he said.
That's why, as memos about asbestos in Navy housing were forwarded from one Navy desk to another during the last six weeks, West became angry enough to sign a statement and testify at a grievance hearing, said Walsh. "He's been through this before," said Walsh.
Indeed, it was frustration that finally led the union to begin a grievance process, said Trades Council president Frank Rodriguez.
"We just wanted to try and put some heat on somebody," he said.
After the shipyard employee with the handful of asbestos came forward, shipyard laboratory tests showed the material he had peeled from a furnace was chrysotile, a common variety of asbestos.
To find if asbestos was widespread in Navy housing, Rodriguez and Don Nelson, a chief shop steward at the shipyard and president for the local chapter of the Asbestos Workers Union, gathered dust and particle samples from four more dwellings in Long Beach and San Pedro, they said.
Positive Test Results
The dwellings, chosen by a shipyard foreman, included the White's Point residence of Capt. Kevin Healy, the Naval Station commander. At least one sample from each residence tested positive for chrysotile asbestos, with three of five showing positive at Healy's home. Most samples were taken from hall closets, where furnaces were, or from heating vents into the houses living areas, said union officials.
Nelson, an asbestos worker for five years, said he was "extremely surprised" by the amount of "friable," or crumbling, asbestos he found at some ducts.
"It wasn't encapsulated," he said. "It was loose. I'm sure it has spread throughout those houses."
In one house, Nelson said he found a metal heating duct rusted through, exposing an asbestos covering to the full force of the forced-air furnace.
The union notified Naval Station housing officer P. L. Brady of its findings in a Sept. 27 letter that requested "corrective action . . . as soon as possible."
In his own Oct. 3 letter, Brady asked Naval Station safety officer Hank Kekoolani to take "immediate action" to see if there is an asbestos problem in Navy housing. "If it is determined that a serous problem exists, I will have to initiate an incidental repair project . . . ," he added.
In an Oct. 8 letter, Kekoolani forwarded Brady's request to the shipyard's Safety and Health Office. He asked to be kept informed of what the shipyard investigation found.
Because no testing for airborne asbestos in Navy housing had taken place by late last week, union officials decided to press their complaint through the grievance procedure, said Rodriguez.