Charleston Naval Base, Charleston, South Carolina
Comprising numerous tenant commands, including Charleston Naval Shipyard, Naval Base Charleston was an important operating base supporting surface ships and submarines for 95 years. Beginning operations as a dry dock in the Cooper River, the base grew to include moorings and piers for destroyers, cruisers, frigates, numerous small craft, attack submarines, fleet ballistic missile submarines, schools and training facilities, warehouses, logistics support, and residential and recreational facilities for assigned navy personnel and their dependents. At its peak the site covered over 1800 acres.
In 1918, the yard delivered its first warship, a destroyer, to the US Navy. Throughout the 1920’s the yard built ships steadily producing 21 destroyers by the end of the 1930’s. In 1931, with the need for the steady dredging of the ship channel leading up the Cooper River from Charleston Harbor increasing, the yard procured the dredge vessel Orion. The dredge still operates in the Cooper River.
Several German submarines were captured at the end of World War II, and the evaluation of those vessels for inclusion of advanced technology in American designs was deemed desirable. Charleston took the lead in the examination of these ships. In the late 1940’s the decision was made for Charleston to take a leading role in the maintenance and modification of US submarines.
Submarine overhauls began in 1948. During the Korean War, the base and shipyard remained busy activating and servicing ships, with 44 mothballed restored to duty at the facilities.
Submarines continued to be a major business for the yard in the 1950’s and 1960’s, and the establishment of nuclear submarine attack squadrons and fleet ballistic missile submarine groups added to the base’s significance in the US military during the Cold War. Surface combatants, including destroyers, cruisers and frigates called the base home. Training facilities were established to support the crews of the ships and submarines stationed there, including the Fleet Ballistic Missile Submarine Training Center.
The overhaul and modification of submarines continued after the Cold War, although the shift of the ballistic missile submarine fleet to the Trident program meant that older submarines carrying the Poseidon missile would be phased out, with the Tridents shifting their home to King’s Bay, Georgia.
The base and shipyard were closed in the mid 1990’s and the dry dock was leased to Detyens Shipyard. Today, multiple uses of the grounds are in development.
Asbestos Exposure at Charleston Navy Base
Charleston Navy Base was built continuously throughout the twentieth century, with its largest expansion occurring before and doing World War II. Most of the buildings erected during that time contained asbestos, which was a favored material in the construction industry. Asbestos was used in floor and ceiling tile, as insulation, as a liner for chimney and smokestacks, in roofing materials and in many other applications.
The base, which built and overhauled ships and submarines during the same period, was full of materials used in the construction and maintenance of those ships. Even residential buildings, used to house sailors and other personnel assigned to the base, contained asbestos laden insulation on pipes and around heating and ventilation ductwork.
Asbestos materials destined for use on the ships was stored in various locations around the base and its tenant commands. Not deemed a hazardous material at the time, and not fully protected until the late 1970’s, asbestos could be found virtually anywhere on the huge site.
Although harmless unless damaged, exposing its fibers to the air, it would have been extremely difficult, if not impossible, to enter any area of the base with the assurance of it being free of the potential hazards of asbestos exposure.