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How the SF mayoral candidates might address the Hunters Point shipyard fraud scandal

Four politicos vying for city’s highest office talk retesting, court orders, and vagaries

Photo by AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez
In this Nov. 9, 2015, photo, with the area’s historic shipyard in the background, David Satterfield, spokesman for lead developer Lennar Urban, walks the grounds of the new San Francisco Shipyard homes development in the Bayview Hunters Point district in San Francisco. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

Since January, when news of the massive and growing fraud scandal at the Hunters Point shipyard redevelopment project first broke on Curbed SF, one of the more remarkable reactions was from the San Francisco power structure.

At least publicly, elected officials and bureaucrats behaved as if nothing were amiss.

Until this month, revelations that the U.S. Navy contractor paid more than $300 million to remove toxic and radioactive contamination from the 450-acre former military base instead faked the job—meaning the city accepted land for development that may still be radioactively contaminated—were met by elected officials and city bureaucrats with a blithe mixture of silence and business-as-usual.

It’s not that the city was caught off-guard. Staffers from the late Mayor Ed Lee’s office—most of whom are still serving current Mayor Mark Farrell—became aware the problem was bigger than previously thought as early as June 2017. But over the past few weeks, with the scandal growing larger and demands from the occupants of the 300-odd units of housing at the SF Shipyard growing louder, prominent city politicians, once stone-faced and tight-lipped, have at last found their voices.

On May 14, the day of a City Hall hearing called by Supervisor Malia Cohen, Mayor Mark Farrell broke a nearly four-month-long silence with a letter to federal officials. Other city agencies, however, have stayed mum or remained loathe to criticize.

The city’s Office of Community and Investment and Infrastructure, for example, has yet to state publicly its plan for the shipyard land it accepted for development that may still be contaminated, and at the May 14 hearing, a Department of Public Health official suggested that health problems in Bayview-Hunters Point aren’t the cause of pollution, but are attributable to stress.

Have attitudes finally changed—and what will happen after June 5, when the city will elect its fourth (or third) mayor since December? Will the next mayor bend to pressure from the real-estate market, or create an office devoted to solving what some are calling an example of environmental racism?

We put the question to the four leading candidates for San Francisco mayor—London Breed, Jane Kim, Mark Leno, and Angela Alioto. June 5’s winner will likely occupy the office for ten years—the rest of Ed Lee’s term, and two terms of their own. What we heard, and what we didn’t hear, suggests different approaches to the scandal the next mayor will likely be dealing with throughout their tenure.

Rally At San Francisco City Hall As Supreme Court Hears Janus v AFSCME Case
London Breed speaks to union members during a rally outside of San Francisco City Hall.
Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

London Breed

Of all the mayoral candidates, perhaps nobody is more connected to the shipyard project than London Breed.

And out of the four candidates contacted by Curbed SF, nobody had less to say than Breed, the former acting mayor and current Board of Supervisors president, who approved and helped speed along the shipyard redevelopment plan while serving on the city’s Redevelopment Commission.

Contacted for an interview prior to the May 14 hearing at City Hall, Breed sent a 150-word statement that did not advocate any specific plan of action. Her campaign did not address follow-up questions sent to other candidates.

“We need to ensure that residents who live in the community are safe and we need to hold the Navy and all of its contractors accountable,” Breed said in a statement provided earlier this month by campaign spokesperson Tara Moriarty.

“The falsification of data is a serious crime and I am pleased to see that the perpetrators have been prosecuted,” she added. “But that is only the beginning. We need to know how extensive the fraud was and we need accountability. That is why I co-sponsored the hearing on this issue, introduced by Supervisor Malia Cohen, [which was heard on May 14]. As mayor I will continue to be relentless in the pursuit of accountability, transparency, and safety of this site.”

Breed did not attend the May 14 hearing.

Breed, who represents the Western Addition on the Board of Supervisors and serves as that body’s president, was also the city’s acting mayor from Ed Lee’s death December 12 until January 23 when her colleagues ousted her in favor of current Mayor Mark Farrell.

It’s unclear what shipyard-related information Breed was privy to during her short stay in Room 200, but Breed should still have as much fluency with this issue as anyone. Before her career as an elected official, Breed sat on the city’s Redevelopment Commission and its successor agency, the Office of Community Investment and Infrastructure.

Both bodies heard much business related to the shipyard project—and both bodies served as little more than rubber stamps for the project, according to critics. Indeed, they approved virtually every bit of shipyard-related business that came before them without much fuss or drama (aside from the noise kicked up by environmentalists, advocates, and gadflies at public comment).

Shortly before her swearing-in to the Board in January 2013, Breed touted her support of Lennar Corporation’s vision for what’s become The SF Shipyard—including plans to transfer some shipyard areas early and build housing there—while a commissioner. Breed voted for the project “because I did my homework,” she told the San Francisco Chronicle.

After its approval by the Office of Community Investment and Infrastructure, the Hunters Point shipyard redevelopment plan sailed through the Board of Supervisors on an 8-3 vote. The project received a blessing from the city family despite the Navy skipping multiple City Hall hearings and not presenting a full accounting for the cleanup plan before the project’s approval, according to news reports from the time.

Breed’s connection goes one layer deeper: One of her first jobs in city government was secretary of the Treasure Island Redevelopment Authority. Treasure Island is also a former Navy property, with radioactive contamination next to housing—and disgraced contractor Tetra Tech also worked on Treasure Island.

Finally, and not insignificantly, Breed is also closely tied to former San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown. While Breed memorably declared during her first campaign that Willie didn’t change her diapers, she did intern for Brown during his first term in office and was on his mind and lips as a potential candidate for office as early as 2007. Brown, you may recall, has spent much of the last decade plugging the shipyard project, serving as a globetrotting pitchman selling overseas investors.

None of this is to say that Breed’s hands are dirty. Still, to date, London Breed has played a role in pushing the development forward—and, as the early transfer episode showed, doing so despite environmental concerns.

In this April 4, 2018 photo, Jane Kim, right, talks with a woman on a street in San Francisco.
Photo by AP Photo/Jeff Chiu

Jane Kim

At least in theory, there are four layers of public oversight at the Hunters Point project. There’s the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the state Department of Toxic Substances Control, the local water-quality board, and the San Francisco Department of Public Health.

But seeing as how that wasn’t enough to catch a massive fraud scandal, “we are obviously going to have to provide additional oversight,” said Supervisor Jane Kim, who subjected Navy, federal, and city officials to some of the toughest questioning heard during the May 14 hearing, launching stronger words than she did during an interview with Curbed SF.

Kim represents District Six on the Board of Supervisors. District Six includes, among other neighborhoods, Treasure Island—yet another massive redevelopment project on land formerly occupied by the Navy, who also left an admixture of industrial and radioactive contamination.

Tetra Tech EC, the same company accused of faking the cleanup at Hunters Point, performed major work at Treasure Island, where—just as in Hunters Point—residents have long complained of health impacts including cancer, and where—again, similar to Hunters Point—a massive redevelopment project is planned.

Some critics have dinged Kim for what they see as a slow and disinterested approach toward subjecting the cleanup at Treasure Island to similar scrutiny. Environmental advocate Eric Brooks told Curbed SF that Kim staffers have insisted to him that “Tetra Tech had basically no role in actual clean up” on Treasure Island.

In her May 11 telephone interview with Curbed SF, Kim described Tetra Tech’s involvement on Treasure Island as “different” than its role at Hunters Point. She also said that the company’s presence creates “incredible concern.”

Kim did not offering a concrete plan, timeline, or vector of action for Treasure Island. (With less than two weeks between now and the election, one is unlikely to emerge.)

If the Navy continues to refuse to test Parcel A, the occupied area of the shipyard, then the city should “bite the bullet” and pay for testing, said Kim.

The mayoral candidate also noted the federal government’s responsibility to clean all the land before they convey it.

“We should be holding the Congressional delegates, and the president to account,” she added.

At the same time, there are local regulators who have thus far been overpowered, overmatched, or too overwhelmed with the task before them to detect the fraud scandal. It may not be fair to expect a local environmental engineers to catch something the U.S. EPA failed to notice, but the situation is a clear demonstration that the status quo is not sufficient.

Angela Alioto.
Photo by AP Photo/Jeff Chiu

Angela Alioto

Angela Alioto believes the former Navy shipyard at Hunters Point has made people sick.

“We had hearings for years,” said the North Beach-based trial lawyer, who served on the Board of Supervisors from 1989 to 1997, in a telephone interview with Curbed SF.

“Women in that area had some of the highest rates of breast cancer in the nation. The question was why—and it’s because of all that radioactive stuff that was not cleaned up.”

Despite this, the city pushed forward with plans to move tens of thousands of new residents to the area because of a prevailing “build first, ask questions later” attitude at City Hall, Alioto believes, evidence of which can be seen in the lean of the city’s Millennium Tower.

“When there is a will to get something done, whether it’s really good for the people or not, the will takes over. They want to build,” she said. “The political will at city hall is to get the job done, not to get the job done well. They cut costs, they cut corners to get the end result everybody wanted in City Hall. And when it backfires on them, the attitude is, ‘Get it done now and apologize later.’”

To resist those forces, and to relieve the pressure on the housing market, a Mayor Alioto would return to familiar territory: a negotiating table parked outside a courtroom. If neither the Navy nor the developer presented an adequate remedy, Alioto would be prepared to ask a judge to shut it all down.

San Francisco’s mayor wields enough power to halt the project in its tracks.

“You could walk into a superior court in California, and you could stop it,” she said. “But that’s not necessarily the remedy we want here. What I would do is to get everybody at the same table to see if there’s a remedy short of an injunction. I’d try to get people to agree not to build on it until there was a sufficiently overwhelming finding of safety. And the liability doesn’t end with [the Navy] leaving.”

Alioto does have prior experience with the Hunters Point shipyard imbroglio. In 2007, her law firm sued developer Lennar Corporation on behalf of three employees—whistleblowers who claimed the developer was causing health problems and then covering it up before retaliating against them, all African Americans, after they raised concerns.

(It bears repeating that the current fraud scandal was made public only after former contractors and workers with Tetra Tech EC came forward—also, they claim, after the company fired them for raising concerns about the fraudulent cleanup.)

At the time, Lennar was busy excavating and grading a hillside above the shipyard, and—according to neighborhood advocates and the local branch of the Nation of Islam, which operated a nearby school—blanketing the school and the surrounding neighborhood with the naturally occurring asbestos in the hillside’s serpentine rock, causing nosebleeds, difficulty breathing, and other health issues.

According to the suit, which court records show was settled out of court in undisclosed terms, Lennar created three times the construction dust allowed by the state, and knew that equipment meant to monitor dust levels wasn’t working.

Mark Leno speaking to supporters in San Francisco.
Mark Leno speaking to supporters in San Francisco.
Photo by AP Photo/Ben Margot

Mark Leno

As befits someone who has been in local elected politics since the 1990s, Mark Leno does have a history with the shipyard.

In 2000, then-Supervisor Leno was one of the sponsors of a non-binding voter initiative urging the Navy to clean up the shipyard to residential levels, in order to free the entire shipyard for “unrestricted use.” That didn’t happen, and barring a revolution, it never will.

The Navy has always argued that such a thorough job would be too expensive. Instead, with city approval, much of the contamination will remain in the ground, underneath soil and concrete caps—which means in turn that much of the shipyard will be off-limits to schools, hospitals, nursing facilities and other uses that draw the young, elderly, and infirm; the developer’s disclosure agreements also prohibit shipyard residents or visitors from eating plants grown in shipyard soil. For the record: wild fennel does do extremely well in the area, so the notion of a “shipyard salad” isn’t ludicrous.

Then, while a state Senator, Leno signed onto a letter expressing distress over the shipyard’s notorious pollution. At the same time, he authored legislation that allowed mega-developer Lennar Corporation to build homes and retail on nearby Candlestick Point—still currently a state park and open space—with the “lost” open space to be “replaced” with open space at the shipyard. (Technically, the developer building the homes at the SF Shipyard is FivePoint, which is comprised of shareholders and executives formerly with Lennar—and Lennar’s branding remains plastered all over the shipyard.)

Critics of this “toxic swap,” including some of the community groups whose fears about the shipyard have mostly been realized, pointed out the deal’s inherent, developer-friendly inequity: The 23 acres at Candlestick were clean and good; the land at the shipyard is a literal toxic waste dump. Lennar can build almost anything it wants at Candlestick, like housing; the land at the shipyard is off-limits to most money-making uses.

Though most of the Candlestick land swapped to Lennar was used as a parking lot, it still remained a good deal for the developer. The bill sailed through the Legislature and became law, with a few lonely voices in opposition. Two of them: then-Assemblyman Tom Ammiano, and Leno’s erstwhile colleague in the state Senate, current federal penitentiary inmate Leland Yee.

One can see here, then, the evolution of a politician, The Wire-like; a path from neighborhood advocate to cog in the machine. But now it’s 2018, and Leno has turned over a new leaf. As if preparing to make the shipyard’s environmental scandal a key issue, Leno sent as his surrogate to a San Francisco Public Press forum on African-American issues a fervent shipyard critic: Ahimsa Porter Sumchai, a physician and Bayview native.

Like Breed, Leno did not grant Curbed SF an interview, at first providing the same 153-word statement first given during a Reddit AMA. Unlike Breed, Leno did respond to follow-up questions (although the same statement did find itself worked into the answers. Amazing, statements!)

Leno echoed what’s become the city line since Curbed SF first reported that Parcel A of the shipyard was transferred and developed despite never undergoing a full scan for radiological contamination—that the area should be tested, by a third-party, and without delay.

Leno inched closest to demanding that community oversight be restored to the shipyard project, which has had no real local authority since the Restoration Advisory Board was dissolved by the Navy in 2009.

He also suggested that the city should set up a “safety net of services and support” for locals suffering from health complications related to shipyard pollution—and also called for “outside independent testing of any land in San Francisco that was worked on by Tetra Tech,” which would include Treasure Island.

In his statement, he says:

As mayor, I would see that the entire base be retested by a third party and with community oversight...It is imperative that the health and safety of San Francisco residents is not compromised in order to speed along a real estate deal. All land should be thoroughly checked—and, if need be, re-checked—to ensure its suitability for affordable housing developments.

Moving forward, San Francisco must provide a safety net of services and support for those who may suffer from health complications due to negligence by City leadership.

Any cleanup proposal that allows for the possibility of toxic exposure to future residents of the housing development is not adequate. As mayor, I will mandate full transparency in the City’s response to what happened at the shipyard. It is imperative that San Francisco leadership is able to refocus its efforts on producing safe, affordable housing that does not come at the expense of the health of our communities.

The San Francisco mayoral election is Tuesday, June 5.