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Hunters Point shipyard contamination testing won’t include housing

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Scanning of sidewalks, parks in housing near radioactive waste dump to begin July 16

Housing at the Hunters Point Shipyard.
New housing under construction at the Hunters Point shipyard.
Photo by Chris Roberts

Warmly welcomed by elected officials, the state health department’s plan to scan for contamination the “publicly accessible” areas around housing built at the former Navy shipyard at Hunters Point won’t actually test the housing itself—fueling criticism from shipyard residents and advocates that the process is a pointless exercise.

Beginning July 16, workers with the California Department of Public Health (CDHP) will scan “open areas of uncovered ground, landscaped areas and…streets and sidewalks” near the housing at the Shipyard SF for gamma radiation, the agency said on Friday.

“Surveying residential units is beyond the scope of this survey,” says the agency’s work plan. “Extensive soil sampling and scanning soils and vegetation for pure alpha and pure beta emitters is beyond the scope of this survey.”

Along with alpha and beta particles, gamma-ray emissions are released when radioactive material decays.

If the scan does detect gamma radiation “above background levels,” further action will be taken, according to the plan.

However, one of the most commonly found radioactive materials at the shipyard—radium 226—mostly emits alpha particles as it decays. And residents were also baffled to hear that CDPH did not ask for access to scan buildings.

“Their attitude was, ‘This is what we can get to right now, this is what we’re starting with,’” said Jason Fried, a shipyard homeowner who attended a July 5 meeting in which CDPH explained its plan to residents.

According to Fried, CDPH did not immediately accept an offer from residents to scan their homes.

A spokesman for the agency did not immediately comment to Curbed SF on Wednesday.

“Residents want to know what’s under their beds,” said Bradley Angel, executive director of Greenaction, an environmental justice nonprofit that’s been closely monitoring the shipyard cleanup process since the 1990s.

Angel criticized CDPH for releasing the plan without a public comment period and without any community oversight, such as an expert observer accountable to locals.

“There’s been a complete lack of transparency,” he said. “This can only be explained, in our view, as an attempt to whitewash what’s going on.”

Exposure to radiation from radioactive materials over time, even at low levels, can lead to serious health complications including tumors and cancer. For years, many residents of Bayview Hunters Point have complained of such health issues. One study in the 1990s found elevated levels of breast cancer among local women, but did not identify the source.

While much of the 450-acre former military base and nuclear warfare research laboratory at Hunters Point is rife with radioactive contamination, the hilltop area where more than 300 housing units have been built since 2014—known as Parcel A-1—has never been fully scanned for this pollution, on the basis that the Navy sited its toxic work elsewhere.

However, whistleblowers who worked for Tetra Tech EC—an environmental engineering company paid $250 million by the Navy to clean the shipyard for redevelopment that’s at the center of an ongoing fraud scandal—say that they discovered radioactive material on Parcel A including radium 226 and cesium 137.

Radium is a radioactive material in heavy use by the Navy during the Cold War to make dials, gauges, and deck markers on ships glow in the dark.

When radium decays, it mostly emits alpha particles, not the gamma rays CDPH workers are seeking.

A 44-acre toxic waste dump down the hill from the housing at the shipyard is known to be rife with radium and other radioactive material created during nuclear radiation tests and during the “cleaning” of ships irradiated with hydrogen bombs during weapons tests in the Pacific.

The Navy is also known to have dumped radioactive material down sinks and drains, contaminating storm and sewer lines. And according to the historic record, buildings on what is now Parcel A and another nearby area that’s been private property since the early 1980s were used by the Naval Radiological Defense Laboratory as lab and storage space.

Much of the Parcel A hilltop was removed prior to the housing’s construction in 2014. The housing and parks sit on top of more than a foot of new topsoil in some areas.

Parcel A was transferred to the city of San Francisco for redevelopment in 2004. The United States Environmental Protection Agency did perform a surface scan of the area in 2002.

That scan failed to find any radioactive contamination—and that same scan also failed to find radioactive contamination on other areas of the base known to be contaminated.

Sandblast waste from ships blasted with nuclear weapons during Cold War weapons tests was at one point used as landscaping material on Parcel A.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi first announced the Parcel A scan plan in late June, following calls from Board of Supervisors President Malia Cohen, who represents Bayview, and other local electeds to assuage residents’ fears.

Like many other local elected officials, Pelosi has been closely tied to the shipyard redevelopment process for many years.

The Navy abandoned the shipyard in 1974 and the base was slated for redevelopment beginning in the 1990s, when Pelosi first arrived in Congress.

Significantly, a representative from Pelosi’s office was in attendance at the July 5 meeting.

Even if the scan does come back with no results, it’s not certain if it will matter—to homeowners unsure what’s under their homes, or to a real-estate market so hot and so starved for supply that homes are near-certain to sell regardless of the risk.

“This whole testing thing is just to mollify us,” said one homeowner, who asked not to be identified by name. “Some big names got upset about it, and now they’re checking some boxes.”

“None of us really trust anything,” the homeowner added. “It doesn’t matter what they say… we don’t really believe any of this anymore.”