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

San Francisco Bay has been heavily polluted, over many years, by any number of industrial activities. The California Department of Health, in fact, advises that adults not consume more than two 8-ounce portions of fish caught in the bay per month. But the Hunters Point Shipyard has clearly added to the bay's problems.

The water's edge surrounding the shipyard is so heavily contaminated that fishing is prohibited entirely there. Evidence of PCBs, petroleum products, and heavy metals -- mainly from shipyard runoff -- has been found in the sediment where fish feed. Since the EPA rejected an early proposal for testing, the Navy has yet to come up with a plan for cleaning the sediment surrounding the shipyard.

Last August, when the landfill at the shipyard caught fire, clouds of green and yellow smoke occasionally billowed across the adjacent Bayview neighborhood of San Francisco. Navy officials did not mention the situation to either the public or the EPA for three weeks. Of course, firefighters didn't know what chemical or other contamination might be in the smoke from the fire they were fighting, which not only hampered their efforts, but placed them in danger. This is to say nothing of the neighbors; the Navy waited until the fire had been put out to test the air in the vicinity. By that time, it was impossible for local health officials to ascertain what pollutants nearby residents might have been exposed to. The testing that was done, of course, didn't even look at the possibility of radiation, because the Navy's Environmental Impact Statement does not mention the possibility that the landfill might contain radiation beyond the radium paint on scrapped dials.

In all, the fire burned for more than a month before it was extinguished. Part of the process of putting out the fire involved installing a temporary cap atop the landfill. It is common practice to "cap" a landfill with dirt to put out a fire. "The cap that was put on there is an interim measure to extinguish subsurface smoldering," says Richard Mach, the Navy's base realignment and closure environmental coordinator.

But Navy contractors installed something significantly more extensive than mere dirt; the "temporary" cap includes layers of fiber material, rock, and dirt, which has led critics to question whether the Navy intends for the cap to be permanent.

Officials from the EPA and the state Regional Water Quality Control Board are still considering what penalties might be levied against the Navy for the potassium permanganate spill and the landfill fire at the shipyard. "We want to know who knew what when," says Claire Trombadore, who oversees the Hunters Point cleanup for the EPA. "We're trying to be very clear."

As things now stand, the shipyard remains a scary, possibly lethal wasteland, even if any possibility of radiological contamination is ignored.

Problems with vinyl chloride, benzene, and a litany of other dangerous toxins are nowhere near resolution.

Still, the city of San Francisco is eager to have the Navy finish its cleanup, so the development of Hunters Point as a civilian community can begin. When that cleanup might be done is, 27 years after the shipyard was closed, utterly unclear.

Last November, following years of failed negotiations, San Francisco and the Navy agreed to a historic deal calling for the Navy to clean up pollutants within 10 feet of the surface of three central parcels on the shipyard, at a cost of at least $120 million, and then to hand the parcels over to the city. Precise cleanup parameters for the remaining two parcels, which contain some of the most toxic sites on the shipyard, have yet to be negotiated.

But the Navy has already pushed back the transfer schedule agreed to last fall; one parcel, originally scheduled to move to city control this fall, will not be ready until next year. "The problem has always been that local governments have very limited leverage," says Deputy City Attorney Michael Cohen. "Basically, they can say, "We won't take the property until it's clean.' But it's up to the regulatory agencies to see that it is cleaned up."

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