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

Last month, environmental contractors working for the U.S. Navy at Hunters Point Shipyard spilled 1,200 gallons of potassium permanganate, a chemical that can be fatal to aquatic life, into San Francisco Bay. Workers were pumping the substance into the soil, hoping to break up a subterranean plume of toxic solvents, when they realized that the water surrounding the shipyard had turned purple. Somehow, these environmental experts had not foreseen the relatively foreseeable likelihood that the potassium permanganate they had pumped into the ground would eventually seep into the shipyard's ancient, cracked storm sewers and then flow into the bay.

While certainly an unusual circumstance, this potassium permanganate affair was not particularly stunning when judged in the context of the Navy's history of environmental stewardship at Hunters Point Shipyard. This is the same Navy, after all, that let a landfill suspected of containing many highly toxic substances burn for three weeks last year without notifying anyone. And it's the same Navy that has repeatedly claimed it is taking all necessary actions to clean up toxins on and under the former base, even as it steadfastly maintains that there are few records that would show what pollutants were dumped in and on the property.

Clearly, Hunters Point would be an extraordinarily polluted place, even if no radiation legacy existed. The shipyard contains a toxic stew of poisonous metals and chemicals, including many that are carcinogens and some, like vinyl chloride, a gas used as a propellant in aerosols before it was found to cause cancer, that are as harmful to humans as radiation. For a century, after all, Hunters Point was a naval shipyard, and after that, the Navy leased out part of the property to businesses that broke up ships for scrap, one of the dirtiest industries known to man.

Since the Navy stopped using its 500-acre property for military purposes in 1974, it has spent more than $150 million studying and cleaning the site. Even so, the investigations undertaken by Navy contractors appear not to have been particularly comprehensive, and those contractors' attempts at environmental cleanup have seemed, to many observers, almost laughably incomplete and ineffective. Environmental documents show that contractors hired by the Navy have been constantly surprised by the amounts and types of toxic waste infesting the former shipyard; Navy officials, meanwhile, have repeatedly obfuscated the exact nature of the pollutants deposited on and in the shipyard. At one point, the Navy even walked away from the cleanup effort entirely, until a lawsuit forced it back to work.

"They [the Navy] have been completely irresponsible in terms of the facility," says Saul Bloom, executive director of ARC Ecology, a San Francisco watchdog organization that has sued the Navy. "You have a pattern and practice going on since the Navy closed the base of complete and utter milking of the cow by the contractors out there, complete naval mismanagement of the contractors, just pissing money away. Now that we're coming up at the end of the day, where it's time to transfer the property over to San Francisco, they [say they] can't afford to spend any more money, and we're just going to have to accept that."

Some of the shipyard's more obvious environmental problems -- underground and surface fuel and chemical storage tanks, for example -- have been removed. A "pickling and plating" vat that held acid used for cleaning ship parts also was carted off. So were more than 4,600 tons of sandblast waste, which, at minimum, contained lead paint chips and a toxic anti-foulant routinely used on ship hulls to control the growth of algae and barnacles.

But in the absence of information from the Navy, and because the Navy has refused to conduct a thorough, grid-by-grid investigation of the entire shipyard, contractors have constantly been surprised; attempting to solve one environmental problem, they've found another. And often the new problem has been more dangerous and daunting than the old.

A few years ago, the Navy agreed to install a sheet-metal-and-pilings wall around the southeast end of the property as a temporary barrier that would, supposedly, keep ground water contaminated by the shipyard's landfill from leaching into the bay. During the process of inserting the wall into the ground, however, contractors hit something and -- surprise -- a green cloud of potentially lethal gas shot into the air. If the landfill is simply capped, as the Navy has suggested, it will remain a frightening, conceivably deadly mystery, even if any possibility of radiological contamination is ignored.

On the opposite end of the shipyard, contractors began excavating soil contaminated with heavy metals, only to find that the contaminated area was larger than they thought. They dug in an ever-widening circle, encountering ever more contamination, before giving up, filling the hole, and walking away. ARC Ecology sued the Navy to restart the cleanup, this time with more extensive testing to determine the boundaries of the problem. As the legal haggling continued, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's standards for cleanup of the soil were eased, making much of the Navy's heavy-metals problem go away.

A plan to clean up a decades-old oil reclamation pond near the shipyard landfill went similarly awry. The Navy dumped used oil in the pond for decades. At first, contractors thought they could simply drain the pond, but hauling off several tanker trucks full of an oil-seawater mix had almost no effect. Finally, the contractors just stopped pumping. They're still at the drawing board, trying to figure out what to do with the seemingly bottomless pond.

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.

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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