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U.S. Navy dinged for pushing for higher radioactivity allowances at Hunters Point

Clean-up standards could present potential long-term hazards

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 Photo by AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recently admonished the U.S. Navy, responsible for removing radioactive and industrial contamination from the former military shipyard at Hunters Point, saying that cleanup standards could pose serious long-term health risks, including an increased chance of cancer for current and former residents.

Blasted as a “gross oversight” by cleanup watchdogs, these findings have nevertheless been accepted by the Navy, which will adjust its cleanup plans no earlier than next year—which could trigger yet another delay in what has turned into a multi-generational saga.

More than 450 acres of waterfront land, the long-planned, conversion of the shipyard into the hub of a “new neighborhood,” similar to the Brooklyn Navy Yard in New York City, is the biggest redevelopment project in San Francisco since the 1906 earthquake—and, at an estimated final value of $21 billion once construction is completed, one of the biggest real-estate projects in the United States.

The cleanup effort has also sets the stage for a drawn-out and ongoing fraud scandal.

The Navy has spent more than $1 billion since the 1990s removing industrial and radioactive contamination from the former shipyard, where, during the Cold War, the Navy decontaminated target ships irradiated during nuclear-weapons testing and also ran secret radiation experiments in a windowless lab.

Some of that work will have to be redone, at a still unknown cost, after at least one of the contractors hired by the U.S. Navy to remove radioactivity, an environmental engineering firm called Tetra Tech, allegedly faked its cleanup work. Another area currently occupied by a market-rate housing development called The Shipyard SF, located on a hill above the shipyard parcels affected by the fraud scandal, was never fully scanned for radioactivity before it was cleared for real-estate development, as Curbed SF first reported. Some homeowners have filed suit.

Under EPA rules, Superfund sites don’t need to be rid of toxic material before they’re removed from the list and made available for development—enough toxic material needs to be removed so that the risk of a resident living in the area contracting cancer is less than 1 in 10,000.

At Hunters Point, every five years, the Navy must review its cleanup plans and progress and present those findings to regulators, including the EPA as well as state and local authorities. Last summer’s five-year review was the first since whistleblowers involved in the alleged fraud stepped forward with detailed allegations that the shipyard is still dirty and Navy data about what’s currently in the soil is unreliable.

In a Nov. 15 letter, John Chesnutt, manager of the Superfund Emergency Management Division at the EPA’s regional office in San Francisco, told Navy officials that his agency “cannot verify that the soil radiological remediation goals” presented in the Navy’s most recent five-year review “are protective of human health for long-term protectiveness.”

Among the deficiencies in the Navy’s plan identified by the EPA was a failure to calculate the “additive cancer risk” from exposure to the multiple radioactive elements present in shipyard soil.

Current Navy estimations of cancer risk gauged the risk based on exposure to each individual radionuclide in isolation.

There have been 11 radioactive elements identified at the shipyard, including plutonium and uranium as well as cesium, strontium, radium, and others.

“We do not expect all 11 radionuclides to be present at one location,” wrote Chesnutt. “However, the absence of usable radiological data across much of the Site makes the extent to which multiple radionuclides and chemical contaminants are present at a single location uncertain.”

The Navy’s current plans, presented to the EPA and other agencies for review last summer, also allow for excessive amounts of radioactive thorium232—and, in certain areas, also allow for radium-226 contamination “above background” levels, said Chesnutt.

Last year, state health inspectors discovered a radioactive object containing radium on land declared clean and safe by the Navy and EPA in 2004.

Soil sampling and other work to begin retesting areas affected by the fraud scandal is currently scheduled to begin no earlier than next spring, probably in April.

How much more work the Navy will have to do hinges on those test results and “an appropriate amount of public involvement,” wrote Chesnutt.

The Navy seems to have accepted the EPA’s critique without much pushback.

“The Navy continues to work with EPA and other regulatory stakeholders to ensure that cleanup efforts at former Hunters Point Naval Shipyard are protective,” the Navy wrote in an update to its webpage about the shipyard, in response to a request from comment from Curbed SF.

“The Navy agrees with EPA that collecting data and evaluating risk is the way to ensure long-term protectiveness. As recommended in the EPA letter, the Navy will verify risk levels using actual data collected in the field during soil retesting.”

The EPA’s findings are consistent with critiques presented to the Navy by watchdog groups including the Golden Gate University Environmental Law and Justice Clinic—and are being interpreted as vindication of said groups’ repeated claims that Navy cleanup standards are inadequate and unsafe. (The clinic’s recently departed longtime staff attorney, Steve Castleman, now in private practice, has been active in shipyard cleanup disputes since he was an assistant district attorney prosecuting a private shipbuilding company, which rented Hunters Point from the Navy after the base closed in 1974, for dumping toxic material there.)

“We commented on this months ago, and said, ‘Navy, your own data says that [the cleanup] is not going to be protective—you need to go back the drawing board and apply more protective, recent standards,” said attorney Robert Mullaney, a clinic staff attorney. “Now it seems like the EPA has come to the same conclusion.”

“From our viewpoint, they manipulated the data like crazy and still came up with a result that shows their plans are not protective,” he added. “After all of these years of fighting about it, the Navy finally comes clean and says, ‘Yeah, we can’t really make this determination of protectiveness because of all this data fraud.’”

The debate of exactly how much radioactive contamination can be left in the ground at the shipyard—and how much of a threat that radioactivity will be, now as well as centuries into the future, when the radioactive elements will still pose a risk—has been a running dispute between the Navy, environmental regulators, and community and advocacy groups monitoring the cleanup.

Last year, an advocacy group called Committee to Bridge the Gap, headed by Daniel Hirsch, the recently retired director of the Environmental and Nuclear Policy Program at UC Santa Cruz, released a report that noted the Navy would be allowed to leave radioactive elements including cesium, radium, strontium, and other nuclear fission byproducts known to cause cancer and other serious health problems in the soil at levels above “normal” remediation standards.

They used the EPA’s own “calculator,” publicly available on the agency’s website, to make that claim. In response, both the EPA and Navy noted that such a conclusion relies on “generic default values” in the calculator and failed to account for “institutional controls” imposed on the shipyard that allow for slightly higher levels of radioactive contamination.

These controls include capping a landfill rife with radioactivity with concrete and dirt, which will eventually be the site of a public park, and prohibiting shipyard residents from growing vegetables near their homes except in raised beds with imported soil.

Future disputes over the shipyard cleanup, including how strict the Navy’s new cleanup standards will be, will absolutely include such questions, and could potentially delay the completion of the redevelopment project, already years behind schedule, even further.

”The important thing is that they retest under the right standard,” Mullaney said. “If you’re not looking for something on the right standard, it’s not going to be detected. If [the Navy] is forced to update their standards, that’s going to apply to the entire shipyard.”