Asbestos controversy aboard Scientology ship Freewinds

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Friday, May 16, 2008

Controversy has arisen over the reported presence of blue asbestos on the MV Freewinds, a cruise ship owned by the Church of Scientology. According to the Saint Martin newspaper The Daily Herald and the shipping news journal Lloyd's List, the Freewinds was sealed in April and local public health officials on the Caribbean island of Curaçao where the ship is docked began an investigation into the presence of asbestos dust on the ship. Former Scientologist Lawrence Woodcraft supervised work on the ship in 1987, and attested to the presence of blue asbestos on the Freewinds in an affidavit posted to the Internet in 2001. Woodcraft, a licensed architect by profession, gave a statement to Wikinews and commented on the recent events.

Starboard side of the Scientology cruise ship Freewinds, berthed at Bonaire, Netherlands Antilles (2004)
Image: Echo29.

According to The Daily Herald, the Freewinds was in the process of being renovated by the Curaçao Drydock Company. The article states that samples taken from paneling in the ship were sent to the Netherlands, where an analysis revealed that they "contained significant levels of blue asbestos". An employee of the Curaçao Drydock Company told Radar Online in an April 30 article that the Freewinds has been docked and sealed, and confirmed that an article about asbestos ran in the local paper.

Lloyd's List reported that work on the interior of the Freewinds was suspended on April 27 after health inspectors found traces of blue asbestos on the ship. According to Lloyd's List, Frank Esser, Curaçao Drydock Company's interim director, joined Curaçao's head of the department of labor affairs Christiene van der Biezen along with the head of the local health department Tico Ras and two inspectors in an April 25 inspection of the ship. "We are sending someone so that they can tell us what happened, where it came from, since when it has been there," said Panama Maritime Authority's director of merchant marine Alfonso Castillero in a statement to Lloyd's List.

The Church of Scientology purchased the ship, then known as the Bohème, in 1987, through an organization called Flag Ship Trust. After being renovated and refitted, it was put into service in June 1988. The ship is used by the Church of Scientology for advanced Scientology training in "Operating Thetan" levels, as well as for spiritual retreats for its members. Curaçao has been the ship's homeport since it was purchased by the Church of Scientology.

According to his 2001 statement, Lawrence Woodcraft had been an architect in London, England since 1975, and joined Scientology's elite "Sea Organization" (Sea Org) in 1986. He wrote that he was asked by the Sea Org to work on the Freewinds in 1987, and during his work on the ship "noticed a powdery blue fibrous substance approximately 1 ½" thick between the paint and the steel wall," which he believed to be asbestos. He also discovered what he thought was blue asbestos in other parts of the ship, and reported his findings to Church of Scientology executives. Woodcraft discussed his experiences in a 2001 interview published online by the Lisa McPherson Trust, a now-defunct organization which was critical of the Church of Scientology.

Cquote1.svg The Freewinds regularly inspects the air quality on board and always meets or exceeds US standards. Cquote2.svg

Church of Scientology spokeswoman Karin Pouw

Church of Scientology spokeswoman Karin Pouw responded to Radar Online about the asbestos reports, in an email published in an article in Radar on May 1. "The Freewinds regularly inspects the air quality on board and always meets or exceeds US standards," said Pouw. She stated that two inspections performed in April "confirmed that the air quality is safe," and asserted that the inspections revealed the Freewinds satisfies standards set by the United States Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the U.S. Clean Air Act.

Pouw told Radar that "The Freewinds will be completing its refit on schedule." The Church of Scientology-affiliated organization Citizens Commission on Human Rights (CCHR) had been planning a cruise aboard the Freewinds scheduled for May 8, but according to Radar an individual who called the booking number for the cruise received a message that the cruise had been delayed due to ongoing work on the ship. Citing an article in the Netherlands Antilles newspaper Amigoe, Radar reported on May 6 that a team from the United States and supervised by an independent bureau from the Netherlands traveled to Curaçao in order to remove asbestos from the Freewinds.

Cquote1.svg ...if the Church of Scientology claims to have removed the blue asbestos, I just don't see how, it's everywhere. You would first have to remove all the pipes, plumbing, a/c ducts, electrical wiring etc. etc. just a maze of stuff. Cquote2.svg

—Lawrence Woodcraft

"I stand by everything I wrote in my 2001 affidavit," said Lawrence Woodcraft in an exclusive statement given to Wikinews. Woodcraft went on to state: "I would also comment that if the Church of Scientology claims to have removed the blue asbestos, I just don't see how, it's everywhere. You would first have to remove all the pipes, plumbing, a/c ducts, electrical wiring etc. etc. just a maze of stuff. Also panelling as well, basically strip the ship back to a steel hull. Also blue asbestos is sprayed onto the outer walls and then covered in paint. It's in every nook and cranny."

Many Scientologist celebrities have spent time aboard the Freewinds, including Tom Cruise, Katie Holmes, John Travolta, Kelly Preston, Chick Corea, Lisa Marie Presley, Catherine Bell, Kate Ceberano, and Juliette Lewis. Now magazine reported that Tom Cruise has been urged to seek medical attention regarding potential asbestos exposure, however a representative for Cruise stated he has "absolutely no knowledge" of the recent asbestos controversy. Cruise, Holmes, Travolta and Preston have celebrated birthdays and other events on the Freewinds.

Cquote1.svg There is not now and never has been a situation of asbestos exposure on the Freewinds. Cquote2.svg

Church of Scientology

In a May 15 statement to the United Kingdom daily newspaper Metro, a representative for the Church of Scientology said that "There is not now and never has been a situation of asbestos exposure on the Freewinds." The Asbestos and Mesothelioma Center notes that agencies have recommended anyone who has spent time on the Freewinds consult with their physician to determine if possible asbestos exposure may have affected their health.

Raw blue asbestos is the most hazardous form of asbestos, and has been banned in the United Kingdom since 1970. Blue asbestos fibers are very narrow and thus easily inhaled, and are a major cause of mesothelioma. Mesothelioma is a form of cancer which can develop in the lining of the lungs and chest cavity, the lining of the abdominal cavity, or the pericardium sac surrounding the heart. The cancer is incurable, and can manifest over 40 years after the initial exposure to asbestos.

"This is the most dangerous type of asbestos because the fibres are smaller than the white asbestos and can penetrate the lung more easily," said toxicologist Dr. Chris Coggins in a statement published in OK! Magazine. Dr. Coggins went on to note that "Once diagnosed with mesothelioma, the victim has six months to a year to live. It gradually reduces lung function until the victim is no longer able to breathe and dies."


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