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Shipyard radiation tests around housing were sound, scientist panel says, but questions remain

A review says the SF Shipyard isn’t radioactive, but didn’t address deeper concerns about the scandal-plagued real-estate project

A view of a large gantry crane just off the bay waters. A fence with barbed wire sits just to the right. Photo by AP Photo/Paul Sakuma

The method used to declare areas of the polluted former Navy shipyard at Hunters Point, now occupied by housing, free of harmful radioactive material was sound, according to results of an expert panel’s review released Friday, and the soil around the 439 condominiums at the SF Shipyard doesn’t need to be rechecked.

However, the panel’s limited mandate—coupled with its finding that the Navy has misled local citizens, and a reliance on limited information and a sketchy history—is not enough to satisfy cleanup watchdogs, who insist on more comprehensive testing of the federal Superfund site, where an alleged fraud scandal has further complicated what was already the biggest, most expensive (and, possibly, most contentious) real estate deal in San Francisco’s history.

A key installation for Cold War-era ship repair and radiation research, the 450-acre shipyard was abandoned by the military in 1974 and declared a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Superfund site in 1989. The Navy’s exit also tracked with an economic collapse among working-class communities of color in Bayview-Hunters Point, for whom Navy jobs were a path to home ownership and the middle class.

To date, the Pentagon has shelled out more than $1 billion to remove chemical and petroleum byproducts as well as potentially cancer-causing radioactive material from soil and buildings so that thousands of homes, along with office space, retail, parks and restaurants, can replace what’s been an industrial wasteland for generations.

Community concerns about the cleanup—and accusations that elected officials and environmental regulators have prioritized real estate development at the expense of human health—have grown louder since two employees from Tetra Tech, a contractor hired by the Navy to clean the shipyard, pleaded guilty to fraud charges for faking at least some of their work, receiving eight-month prison sentences. (The company stands by its claim that the toxic coverup is the result of “two rogue employees.”) A later review of the company’s data showed that up to 97 percent of the company’s work was potentially fraudulent.

Homeowners at the SF Shipyard have since filed suit against the developer and its former parent company and major shareholder, Lennar, which built and sold the homes.

Last year, the U.S. Justice Department filed a False Claims Act suit against Tetra Tech, seeking to recover at least some of the taxpayer money paid to clean the shipyard. That litigation remains ongoing.

In the meantime, the Navy has committed to retesting at least part of the areas at the shipyard. Other areas, including a bayside dump where radioactive material will stay on-site in situ, capped by concrete and dirt, are considered by the Navy and EPA to not be affected by the scandal.

Retesting is scheduled to begin this spring, but as Curbed SF reported in 2018, critics and experts have questioned the method used to declare the hilltop area occupied by market-rate housing—called Parcel A1—free of radiological contamination. A later rescan by the California Department of Public Health found no radiation and declared the site sound, but also discovered a radioactive deck marker on land thought to be clean.

Breaking with practice that’s seen most local elected officials steer clear of the shipyard, last April, Mayor London Breed, City Attorney Dennis Herrera, and District 10 Supervisor Shamann Walton asked experts from the University of California, San Francisco, and from the University of California at Berkeley to assess whether the state’s “health and safety survey”—which involved running gamma-radiation detecting equipment over roads and public areas, as well as checking 77 homes for radioactive dust—was good enough.

The short answer, according to a four-member panel that included nuclear physicists as well as a physician, is “yes.”

Although Parcel A was not tested for radioactivity before it was handed over to the city for development in 2004—with no restrictions—a later scan by state workers did not detect any problems. A significant amount of Navy-era dirt from the hilltop was removed and replaced with clean dirt prior to construction. All of this, combined with the belief from Navy, EPA, and city public health officials that radioactive material wasn’t used on Parcel A during the Cold War, “suggests it is unlikely that radioactive material are buried deeper” beneath homes or in playgrounds, parks, or streets around the 439 homes, said the panel.

Housing at the Hunters Point Shipyard.
Housing under construction at the Hunters Point shipyard in 2018.
Photo by Chris Roberts

An explanation of how the deck marker ended up in an area already deemed clean and ready for development, on the hillside away from the homes but still in an area considered free of such material, was not within the panel’s mandate—and remains a mystery.

But “given the low likelihood that additional radioactive materials will be found and the considerable disruption associated with additional excavation and monitoring,” wrote the panel, “any plans for more extensive radiation testing in Parcel A should be considered with input from the current residents in terms of the costs (in terms of disruption) relative to benefits of any small gains in confidence about the absence of radioactive materials.”

Any clean bills of health for Parcel G, a rectangular area down the hill from Parcel A known to be contaminated with radioactive elements—including fission byproducts like cesium-137 and strontium-90 as well as radium-226, all of which can cause cancer and other health problems—must wait until after the Navy retests the area.

As for the Navy, the panel dinged military officials for misleading the public with overly sanguine descriptions. Printing flyers and distributing material, for example, that claim the shipyard poses “no risk to human health” rather than a more accurate “no radioactivity detected above baseline” has not helped restore what the panel acknowledged is deep “mistrust.” Rather than “minimiz[e] risk,” the panel said, the Navy should convey information about risk “in a way that is consistent with what the data actually show.”

Navy officials have not commented on the review. A statement from Breed’s office thanked the panel for its work—which felt like “business as usual” for shipyard watchdogs like environmental advocacy group Greenaction, according to Sheridan Noelani Enomoto, a community organizer with the outfit.

“Trust is none to zero right now,” she said. “What’s different now? Why should we believe the process now?”

The panel’s report didn’t answer those questions, she added.

Shipyard cleanup watchdogs identified multiple shortcomings in the review panel’s admittedly narrow scope. For one, the idea that Parcel A was never used to store or experiment with radiological material (reported in oral interviews by city, state, and federal environmental watchdogs to the panel, according to UCSF spokeswoman Laura Kurtzman) is based on an historic record with significant gaps.

Those gaps exist because, in part, Navy records were destroyed or are missing. The federal Department of Energy has declared some records classified—but as reported by Curbed SF in 2018, the record does indicate that the Cold War-era Naval Radiological Defense Laboratory used several hilltop buildings, long since demolished, for storage, though it’s not known what was stored there.

According to David Anton, an attorney representing the whistleblowers whose testimony has led to the guilty pleas in federal court of two Tetra Tech supervisors for fraud, the UC panel was given the option to interview cleanup workers who knew how Parcel A was tested before its 2004 handover for development, and “UC chose not to contact them,” he said. (Doing so just wasn’t within the panel’s city-given mandate, according to a statement from John Balmes provided by Kurtzman.)

“The committee just assumed the historical record is accurate but didn’t discuss whether the record should be relied on, they didn’t review any whistleblower testimony,” Enomoto said. She also echoed previous calls for a community panel—called a Restoration Advisory Board, a citizen committee dissolved by the Navy more than a decade ago after Navy officials deemed it too unruly—to be reinstated.

More testing and more community input is likely to slow completion of the project, already years behind schedule, and complicate it even further. But “we need to get it right,” Enomoto said. “Whatever happens to the shipyard, in my opinion, is going to affect not only San Francisco but the Bay Area and beyond.”