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Hunters Point cleanup fraud: Accused contractor says we didn’t do it

Tetra Tech rejects findings that it faked toxic cleanup at major redevelopment site, offers to pay for third-party testing

Photo by Chris Roberts

Tetra Tech, the beleaguered billion-dollar environmental firm accused of faking the billion-dollar, decades-long cleanup at the toxic former Navy shipyard at Hunters Point, at last offered a rejoinder on Wednesday.

Says the firm: Not only did the company clean up to the Navy’s standards the radioactive and industrial contamination at the shipyard, San Francisco’s biggest redevelopment project in a century—contrary to findings from third-party contractors hired by the Navy, later sustained by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which estimated nearly all of Tetra Tech’s work is fraudulent or untrustworthy—but Tetra Tech is willing to hire, on its own dime, yet another third-party contractor to prove it.

“The misleading accusations about our work at Hunters Point cannot stand,” said Dan L. Batrack, Tetra Tech Inc.’s CEO and chairman, in a letter dated Tuesday sent to Navy officials. “We are fully confident that a fact-based, scientific, and independent analysis will prove the claims against us are false.”

The letter was first provided to the San Francisco Chronicle, which published a story minutes before other media were alerted to a press conference held Wednesday morning.

The former Navy shipyard at Hunters Point was a major warship repair base and home to a Cold War-era nuclear warfare testing laboratory. Contamination there includes radioactive trash and residue from ships irradiated with hydrogen bombs as well as remnants from tests conducted on animals to gauge the effect of radiation on living things.

The lab closed in 1969, and the Navy vacated the base entirely in 1974. The EPA declared the shipyard a Superfund site, among the county’s most toxic sites, in 1989.

The shipyard was also major employer, and its closure led to an economic crisis in the predominately African-American Bayview-Hunters Point neighborhood that many argue continues today.

In the decades since, contamination from the shipyard—as well as other sources of pollution in the area, including a former PG&E power plant, a fat-rendering plant, a wastewater-treatment plant and other heavy industry not seen elsewhere in San Francisco—has been blamed for high rates of cancer, asthma, and other serious health issues peculiar to the city’s southeastern corner.

In 2008, San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors approved an ambitious redevelopment plan that called for the shipyard and nearby Candlestick Point to be transformed into a new neighborhood with more than 10,000 units of housing, millions of square feet of office space and retail, parks, and other amenities.

To date, Lennar Urban and an affiliated company called FivePoint have built and sold more than 300 homes at the former shipyard, all on a hilltop area that was transferred to the city in 2004. Both the city, the developer, and environmental regulators all insist that that area, which the Navy claims was mostly offices and housing, is free from contamination.

To remove industrial solvents, petroleum byproducts, and radioactive contamination from shipyard repair and lab areas, the Navy hired Tetra Tech, which had been working at the shipyard in various capacities since at least 1993, according to documents on file with the state’s Department of Toxic Substance Control.

Problems with Tetra Tech EC’s work first arose in 2012, when the Navy noticed aberrations with data regarding soil samples. Tetra Tech admitted limited wrongdoing in 2014, but blamed it on a few workers acting independently. The company was not fined, and was allowed to continue working after offering its employees retraining on ethics.

The Navy at first accepted that excuse and solution, but more—and more detailed—accusations from former Tetra Tech workers and contractors prompted the EPA to pause land transfers at the 450-acre shipyard in 2016 while the extent of the problem could be discovered.

Photo by Chris Roberts

In a subsequent review of Tetra Tech’s work prepared by the Navy by third-party contractors, first obtained and reported publicly by Curbed SF in January, nearly half of the company data had signs of outright falsification. A subsequent review of those findings by the Environmental Protection Agency found that nearly all of Tetra Tech’s data was questionable enough to require the work—roughly $300 million worth, according to the Navy—to be redone.

The Navy is supposed to begin physical retesting of the site sometime this year, but no timeline for that work has been publicly released.

In his letter, Batrack blasted the whistleblowers’ allegations as “false and misleading.”

The company “vehemently denies such allegations are representative of Tetra Tech’s actions at the site,” he wrote.

“We want the Hunters Point community and the Navy to know that Tetra Tech stands by its work at Hunters Point. We are fully confident that a fact-based, scientific, and independent analysis will prove the claims against us are false.”

It’s not clear how much a review would cost or when it could begin.

Derek Robinson, the Navy’s lead project manager on the cleanup, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Central to Tetra Tech’s claims that the findings to date are “wild speculation” are that the reviews have been “desktop” reviews of data, not actual retesting, and that the data was reviewed by environmental cleanup firms that are Tetra Tech’s competitors, Sam Singer, a crisis communications consultant hired by the company, said at a press conference Wednesday.

Bradley Angel, executive director of Greenaction, an environmental advocacy nonprofit that’s been monitoring the shipyard cleanup for years, questioned the timing and the sincerity of Tetra Tech’s offer.

The company “is liable for all this mess” already, Angel pointed out. Further, “If even half of what the Navy says is true, Tetra Tech is finished.”