Dirty Dealings at the Dock

San Francisco is planning to take title to the decommissioned Hunters Point Naval Shipyard before the military completes an environmental cleanup. The move could cost the city hundreds of millions of dollars -- or more.

* Constructing underground funnels and gates to move the plumes into underground water treatment plants.

* Extracting the ground water, treating it, and disposing of it in the bay.
* Implementing a process called air sparging, which involves shooting air into the ground to gasify polluted water, which then would be extracted.

But these are just proposals the Navy has made for cleaning up a small amount of land on a small portion of the base. All across the base thousands of square yards of dirt will have to be removed to landfills. At the landfill, the Navy is proposing to excavate soil and then construct multilayered clay caps on the ground. In addition, the Navy has proposed placing underground liners to prevent rainwater from reaching the underground toxics.

There is, of course, a difference between proposing and acting. And the one formal, legally binding decision issued in connection with the Navy's cleanup program for the Hunters Point shipyard suggests that the Navy is going to be very slow about acting on a cleanup.

In October of last year, the Navy published exact plans for Parcel B, the first dirty lot to be cleaned and turned over to the city, sometime in the year 2000. Among the biggest concerns on Parcel B are nickel and TCE plumes in ground water. And although ground water extraction and other cleanup methods were considered, the Navy settled on a wait-and-see approach.

For 30 years the Navy proposes to monitor the ground water.
If monitoring wells pick up unexpected levels of nickel or TCE, the Navy plans to do -- well, just about everything possible to avoid removing the toxics.

First Navy consultants will conduct monitoring tests more frequently. If levels don't go down, the Navy will average the test results. If that doesn't bring the Navy in line with federal regulations, more monitoring wells will be drilled. If that doesn't work, Navy officials will go back and rethink their assumptions about what constitutes a risk. If that doesn't work, the Navy will rethink its equations about how fast the toxics will degrade and dilute while moving toward and into the bay. If none of these avoidance techniques eliminate the problem, then, and only then, will the Navy remove the toxic threat from the water under Parcel B.

Why all this furious dancing around the problem?
Chris Shirley, a scientist for the environmental group ARC Ecology, says the Navy doesn't really know what size problem it has on its hands at Hunters Point.

"And they don't want to find out," says Shirley, who has read all the naval reports and keeps in contact with EPA regulators dealing with the shipyard.

Without a dirty transfer, everything about the situation at the shipyard points to a long cleanup and a slow, painful transfer of the base to the city. Even if the Navy cared about Willie Brown's political fortunes and the San Francisco economy and wanted to clean the base quickly, it doesn't have the money to do so. Hunters Point must compete with other closed military facilities across the country for a single Pentagon cleanup budget that is dependent, year to year, on congressional appropriations.

This competitive situation already delayed the transfer of Parcel B from 1998 until the year 2000. Further funding delays are all but certain.

These realities -- and the perceived political benefits of the quick redevelopment of Hunters Point -- have led the city to make the dirty-transfer option its preferred route. Of course, the city would prefer that the Navy pay for the job, says Byron Rhett, the Redevelopment Agency official in charge of the shipyard project. But he and others acknowledge that a developer-financed remediation may be necessary and is under discussion.

The city is talking to several developers informally, including Catellus Development Corp. and Texas-based Lincoln Property Co., about taking the land dirty and paying for the cleanup, according to city officials and one of the developers. But a dirty transfer and developer cleanup would, city officials acknowledge, cost San Francisco large amounts of money.

"If the cleanup comes out of the developer's pocket, the developer pays us less for the land," Rhett says.

No appraisals of the value of the shipyard property have been conducted. But it's hard to imagine that the city could discount the cost of the property by the $300 million or more a cleanup would cost and still reap a sizable profit from the land, which the Navy, by law, must turn over to the city free of charge.

It is not surprising that shifting the financial burden of a cleanup to the city suits the military just fine. "Hey, every dollar we don't have to spend cleaning up Hunters Point can be spent at some other base," says Navy spokesman Jeff Young.

There are other pressures -- aside from Navy timing -- impelling the city toward the dirty-transfer option.

This year the city will take possession of the first parcel of the shipyard and enter a legal agreement with the Navy called a lease in furtherance of conveyance. With this agreement come two things: the ability of the city to execute short-term leases at the shipyard, and the city's assumption of responsibility for police and fire services, sewer maintenance, and building safety.

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