Chlorine, Benzene, Vinyl Chloride, Trichloroethylene, Beryllium, Nickel, PCBs ...

Even if radioactivity were ignored, Hunters Point Shipyard would be one of the planet's most polluted properties


Even if no more environmental surprises leap from the shipyard, the known hazards on the property are downright scary. Near the middle of the property lies a particularly nasty spill of trichloroethylene (TCE), a solvent used for cleaning and degreasing that is itself a carcinogen and that breaks down into vinyl chloride, also known to cause cancer. The TCE spill apparently covers at least three acres. TCE can cause cancer when it's ingested; usually this would occur when people drink water contaminated with the solvent. But TCE becomes even more dangerous to humans if it's broken down by soil bacteria into vinyl chloride gas.

At Hunters Point, the dangers posed by vinyl chloride are hardly theoretical.

Chris Shirley, a scientist with ARC Ecology, says the concentration of vinyl chloride in the soil -- more than 55,000 times greater than EPA warning levels -- is higher than one would expect from the breakdown of TCE known to have been spilled at the site. Shirley and others wonder whether polyvinyl chloride (a substance made from vinyl chloride) was spilled into the ground, a circumstance requiring a major cleanup effort before humans could continuously inhabit the area in safety. (Buildings constructed above contaminated areas could trap gas leaking from the ground and endanger inhabitants.) The Navy has disputed the spill theory. Still, vinyl chloride is used to make soft plastics, including some types of plastic paint. And former employees say plastic paint was used extensively at the shipyard.

Tests have found beryllium, a metallic element used in alloys and ceramics and a carcinogen that leads to lung cancer, throughout the shipyard. Benzene, a chemical used in industrial lubricants and detergents and in crude oil and gasoline, also has shown up in shipyard testing. Benzene exposure has been linked to leukemia. The Navy attributed benzene found in air samples taken last fall, when the shipyard landfill was burning, to exhaust from traffic on nearby Highway 101. Shirley believes the benzene levels recorded in those tests are too high to have come from freeway exhaust, and instead are coming from an area near the landfill where the chemical was dumped.

Ground water is known to be contaminated all over the shipyard -- a leading reason that the Navy has proposed deed restrictions that would prohibit people who move into housing built at the decommissioned base from planting vegetables. According to the Navy's feasibility study of the property, ground water in the center of the shipyard contains metals, volatile and semivolatile organic compounds (chemicals containing elements that easily evaporate into the atmosphere), petroleum byproducts, and manufactured chemicals, all of which can cause birth defects and liver and kidney problems. In fact, metals are present in ground water all over the property; for example, the northeast part of the property has ground water that contains high levels of nickel, used for many industrial purposes, including making batteries. Nickel is known to cause blood disease, asthma, and cancer, among other maladies. There is no plan to clean up the ground water; it is considered to be so polluted that it must not be used, ever again, by humans.

The landfill at Hunters Point is easily the most toxic site in San Francisco, if not the Bay Area. Part of what makes it dangerous is that no one knows what's inside the 46-acre dump, aside from chlorine gas tanks and other pollutants that have been discovered by accident. The Navy contends it has no record of what was tossed in the dump. Rather than test the landfill's interior, the Navy has proposed capping the landfill without investigation. This strategy worries Bloom, the ARC executive director (who was not privy to the results of SF Weekly's investigation into possible radioactive contamination at the shipyard and the landfill). "We're very concerned about that," Bloom says. "You can't just lock the kid in a closet and not worry about what it's going to be like when he comes out. This is a seismically active area. [Whatever is in the landfill] is going to get out."

As if the government had not polluted the shipyard thoroughly enough, after leaving in the mid-1970s the Navy leased out portions of the former shipyard to two companies that would take the meaning of the term "pollution" to a new level. One was so negligent as to be criminally prosecuted for its environmental sins.

From 1976 until 1989, Triple A Machine Shops Inc. leased a portion of the shipyard from the Navy. While it was in operation, Triple A allegedly dumped heavy metals and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) on the fill area and piled up enough metal shavings to cover a football field. In 1992, a judge slapped Triple A with a $9.2 million fine -- the largest in California history -- for dumping toxic waste on the property; the fine was reduced to $115,000 by an appeals court ruling. In 1996, District Attorney Terence Hallinan settled a suit against Triple A for cleanup costs of $1.1 million.

Last year, a federal judge found another shipyard tenant, Astoria Metals Corp., in violation of the federal Clean Water Act and ordered the company to stop discharging contaminated water into the bay. Astoria contracts with the Navy to break up old ships at Dry Dock 4.

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