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Navy: Hunters Point retesting to begin this fall, but process could take year or more

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“We want the public to be confident in this,” says Navy

Parcel G: The building with the tower, building 351, is where whistleblower Anthony Smith claims he found radioactive dirt in a crawlspace that Tetra Tech EC allegedly told him to ignore.
Photo by Chris Roberts

Sometime this fall, environmental contractors hired by the U.S. Navy will return to the former shipyard at Hunters Point for the first chapters of what will be a lengthy and costly do-over.

Results of this $250 million redux—available sometime next year at the earliest—will determine whether the city’s largest redevelopment project in a century will be delayed by merely years, or if the strategy to solve San Francisco’s housing crisis needs to be overhauled entirely.

The transformation of the polluted former shipyard, an EPA Superfund site contaminated with toxic and radioactive waste located in the city’s southeastern corner, into a new neighborhood with more than 10,000 units of housing has been on hold since 2016, after whistleblowers who worked with contractor Tetra Tech EC, paid $250 million by the Navy to remove that contamination, alleged the company had faked its work.

Those allegations have largely been sustained, according to a review of Tetra Tech EC’s data conducted last year. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, as much as 97 percent of Tetra Tech’s work showed signs of fraud.

To date, two former Tetra Tech supervisors have pleaded guilty to federal fraud charges and have been sentenced to prison.

Despite all this, the company has repeatedly denied any wrongdoing and insisted its work is sound.

Whistleblowers Anthony Smith (left, in red) and Bert Bowers (right) pointing out areas where they discovered contamination.
Photo by Chris Roberts

Hunters Point is contaminated with pollution from shipbuilding and repair as well as a nuclear warfare research lab. Ships irradiated during nuclear-weapons tests in the Pacific were “decontaminated” at Hunters Point. Radioactive waste from laboratory experiments as well as ship dials and gauges painted with radium 226—a radioactive compound that deteriorates into dangerous radon gas—was dumped at sea, spread around the site by sandblasting, and buried in a 44-acre landfill in wetlands near the edge of the bay.

Beginning as early as this fall, other contractors hired by the Navy will start digging and scanning soil and testing former shipyard buildings located on Parcel G—a 40-acre, rectangular area located about halfway between the more than 300 homes built and occupied at the shipyard and the massive L-shaped crane that’s become The SF Shipyard’s signature feature.

The Navy will take comment from the public and from regulatory agencies on its work plan for Parcel G, released today, until August 14.

Pollution at Parcel G includes storm and sewer lines, contaminated thanks to Navy practices of pouring radioactive waste down sinks, spills of radioactive material carried between buildings, and buildings themselves that were used to house radioactive material.

Parcel G is just one of a handful of areas where Tetra Tech EC worked at the shipyard. Altogether, roughly 300 acres of the shipyard are implicated in the fraud scandal. There is not yet any plan for when those other areas will be retested.

Retesting just Parcel G alone could take as long as six months, Navy officials said this week.

The total cost is not yet known, and the Navy has not yet chosen all the companies to do the work. At least one firm, Dallas-based Jacobs Engineering, will be involved, according to Derek Robinson, the Navy’s environmental coordinator for the shipyard.

The Navy is currently soliciting “bids from several companies, to see who can do it for a good price,” said Robinson.

And unlike the last time—when Tetra Tech EC collected data that was then signed off by the Navy as well as federal and state environmental regulators—both the California Department of Public Health and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency will pull their own data concurrently, said officials.

“Our real hope is to get into the field by the fall,” Robinson said during a conference call with reporters. “Resampling this area is going to give us data to confirm that the site is safe, or, if needed, to come up with an additional work plan to get us there.”

“We’re focused on public confidence,” he added. “That’s very important for us. We want the public to be confident in this.”

While it’s not known to any degree of certainty whether the shipyard areas tested by Tetra Tech are clean or are still rife with the radioactive and industrial contamination it was tasked to remove, Navy officials repeatedly stressed that the shipyard is “safe,” and poses no risk to the public or environment.

Given the lack of trustworthy data, it was not clear on what basis that claim was made.

In the meantime, both San Francisco’s Office of Community Investment and Infrastructure and FivePoint, the property developer affiliated with homebuilding giant Lennar Urban, have agreed to stop work on three parcels already transferred to the city in 2015 that, as Curbed SF first reported, have also been implicated in the fraud scandal.

No plan to retest those areas has been released, and there is not yet any timetable to release such a plan.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi announced late Thursday that the California Department of Public Health will start “rescanning” areas of Parcel A, a hilltop area where several hundred people live in flats and townhomes that overlooks the dirtiest portions of the shipyard.

Parcel A has never been fully scanned for radiological contamination, a half-measure proposed by the Navy and accepted by environmental regulators on the basis that the Navy did not use the hilltop for radioactive or industrial uses.

However, as Curbed SF reported, public records indicate that buildings once located on the hilltop were used for storage and lab space associated with the Naval Radiological Defense Laboratory, which ran animal and human experiments at Hunters Point from 1946 to 1969.

According to a brief press release from Pelosi’s office, the Navy agreed to her “request to rescan, with the California Department of Public Health running the process.”

No other details regarding the Parcel A rescanning plan were available Friday. Neither the Navy nor a Pelosi spokesperson provided details when asked, and an inquiry sent to the California Department of Public Health was not immediately returned.

So far, aside from a mild tongue-lashing from the Navy, Tetra Tech EC has escaped significant punishment for its alleged wrongdoing.

According to a May 1 letter sent from the Navy to the company, obtained by Curbed SF in a public-records request, the Navy expressed “dissatisfaction with Tetra Tech’s performance” at the areas where fraud was later discovered.

The Navy is currently “evaluating such other contractual remedies that may be available, including the possibility of terminating [Tetra Tech’s] contracts for default,” wrote Navy contracting officer Karen Barba.

Photo by Chris Roberts

Tetra Tech spokesman Sam Singer released a statement following today’s announcement, which, in part, reads, “Tetra Tech has offered the Navy to pay, at its own expense, for independent re-testing of its work at the shipyard which has been questioned. We still stand by this offer as a way to expedite the outcome of this process.”

The Navy also has no plans for “independent community oversight” of the retesting plan aside from public meetings, the first of which is scheduled for October.

In the past, the Navy had a “restoration advisory board” consisting of community members, who could pose questions directly to Navy officials. That board was dissolved unilaterally by the Navy in 2009.

“Not one government agency is hearing the cry from the community for a comprehensive retesting plan with independent community oversight,” said Bradley Angel, executive director of Greenaction, an environmental nonprofit that has been watching the shipyard cleanup for years. “The community wanted prompt retesting years ago—where was Pelosi, where was Malia Cohen?”