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Praised plan to test Hunters Point shipyard housing could miss radioactivity

“It is a PR undertaking, not a serious effort to identify whether there is contamination”

Photo by Chris Roberts

Last week, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi broke the news that the area around housing built at the former Navy shipyard at Hunters Point would at last be scanned for radioactive contamination—a response to mounting demands from residents and local elected officials following revelations that the area, once part of an EPA Superfund site, was never fully screened for toxic contamination.

Exactly what the California Department of Public Health will do once work begins in July is uncertain—the agency is still “in the preliminary planning stage,” state DPH officials told Curbed SF this week—but as currently described, the rescanning could miss radioactivity potentially on-site, experts told Curbed SF.

That potential, and the warm welcome with which Pelosi and other officials greeted the still-developing plan, has fueled criticism that the rescan is a “totally inadequate” public relations stunt.

About 400 condominiums have been built and sold at The SF Shipyard, a still-growing housing development on a 47-acre hilltop area in San Francisco’s southeastern corner. These are the first of more than 10,000 housing units planned for the area, but the new neighborhood’s future is in doubt thanks to an ongoing fraud scandal.

Two workers with Tetra Tech EC, one of the firms paid about $1 billion by the U.S. Navy to remove radioactive and industrial pollution from the shipyard, an EPA Superfund site, have pleaded guilty to faking their work—sustaining allegations first made by whistleblowers.

That scandal is separate but related to the issues facing homeowners who bought condos at The SF Shipyard.

Their homes are on land transferred to the city for development in 2004 after federal and state environmental regulators declared it clean and safe—despite the fact that land was never fully scanned for the contamination polluting the rest of the base, a hub for nuclear warfare research during the Cold War.

The hilltop area where housing is built is called Parcel A. The same whistleblowers who said Tetra Tech faked its work throughout the shipyard say they discovered soil and sewer lines at Parcel A contaminated with cesium and radium, just two of the radioactive compounds present at Hunters Point.

On June 14, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, who represents San Francisco, announced that the California Department of Public Health had agreed to “rescan” Parcel A beginning sometime in July, with results available by the fall.

“Following the massive potential data falsification by contractor Tetra Tech, it is imperative that residents have access to trustworthy data to prove that there is no risk posed to the health and safety of residents, workers and visitors at the new Shipyard community on Parcel A,” Pelosi said in a statement. “While the Navy and EPA assure us that this Parcel is safe, I am pleased that they made the right call by agreeing to my request to rescan, with the California Department of Public Health running the process.”

The announcement was greeted warmly by San Francisco’s Office of Community Investment and Infrastructure, which is overseeing the redevelopment process, and the San Francisco Department of Public Health, which has been tasked with monitoring the cleanup.

“We are pleased with the collaborative approach amongst Federal and State Agencies and welcome the support they have shown for the re-test of Parcel A,” Nadia Sesay, OCII’s executive director, said in a statement released Friday. “The health and safety of the residents and workers at the Shipyard is of the highest importance to us.”

However, the announcement had next to no details about what the rescanning plan would entail or what it would cost.

In the following days, responding to questions from Curbed SF, California DPH officials said that the plan was still in the “preliminary planning stage.”

Thus far, the plan is to perform a “gamma radiation survey” of “publicly accessible areas” at Parcel A.

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

Only “uncovered ground with limited shielding from asphalt and concrete” will be scanned using sodium iodide detectors that look for gamma-ray emitting isotopes. No soil samples will be taken, according to a statement provided on June 19 to Curbed SF by Wendy Hopkins, a California DPH spokesperson.

Such a plan is “totally inadequate,” according to Wilma Subra, a Louisiana-based chemist with a history of monitoring environmental disasters and who has monitored the Hunters Point cleanup saga for about a decade.

“Limiting the rescanning to only publicly accessible areas of Parcel A-1 is not acceptable,” she told Curbed SF. “The lack of sampling under structures is totally inadequate to protect populations that may live or work in the structures on the parcel.”

Contamination from radioactive or contaminated objects buried in soil has the potential to migrate to the surface over time.

As per the current plan, “if the contaminated soil/object is buried in some depth (e.g., in the order of a foot or more), the sensitivity of detecting it will be quite limited,” said Kai Vetter, a nuclear physicist at UC Berkeley who runs a radiation watch program at the university.

Further, since other contaminants like radium 226 emit alpha particles, “the sensitivity to detect radium will be also be limited in this way using a [sodium iodide] detector,” he added.

The shipyard is full of radium 226, a radioactive isotope used heavily by the U.S. Navy during the Cold War as glow-in-the-dark paint for gauges, deck markers, and dials. Radium 226 was also detected in sewer lines on the Parcel A hilltop in 2004, according to Bert Bowers, a former supervisor at the cleanup.

Those sewer lines and any Navy-era soil are long gone: The sewer lines were supposed to have been removed in the mid-2000s. Further, the top two feet of soil at Parcel A was removed, trucked away, and replaced with fresh soil in the early 2010s, according to the EPA.

Still, the shortcomings mean “[the] work is bogus,” said Daniel Hirsch, a retired professor of nuclear policy at UC Santa Cruz. “No soil testing; no scanning for beta- or alpha-emitting radionuclides; and too insensitive to detect even gamma radionuclides at the levels that could be a significant health risk.”

“It is a PR undertaking, not a serious effort to identify whether there is contamination,” he added. “When someone hides something, it is generally because they have something to hide.”

“Where is the plan?” asked Bradley Angel, executive director of environmental nonprofit Greenaction, a shipyard cleanup watchdog. “Why isn’t the community and public being given an opportunity to have input into the plan? Why the lack of transparency?”

Such critiques may trigger changes. After sending such questions late Tuesday, Angel said that a California DPH official contacted him to say that state DPH and Department of Toxic Substances Control, which will reportedly also be involved, are meeting to “address our concerns.”

Public confidence in the shipyard cleanup has taken a hit thanks in no small part to public-health officials’ repeated insistence for years that the shipyard is “clean and safe” despite a lack of data backing up such assurances.

On May 14, Amy Brownell, the San Francisco Department of Public Health’s point person on the shipyard, gave a presentation to the Board of Supervisors entitled “Hunters Point Shipyard: Decades of Ensuring Safety.”

The presentation noted that SF DPH as well as US EPA signed off on Parcel A as safe in 2004, and that SF DPH began a “daily review” of the cleanup work in 1993.

No public-health agency managed to catch the fraud committed by Tetra Tech, subsidiaries of which have worked at Hunters Point—including on Parcel A—since the 1990s.

Only whistleblower accounts triggered a review by other Navy-hired contractors. A later EPA review of those contractors’ findings revealed that as much as 97 percent of Tetra Tech’s work had signs of fraud.