Fallout

How nuclear researchers handled -- and grossly mishandled -- the Cold War's most dangerous radioactive substances at a top-secret lab inside the Hunters Point Shipyard. The same shipyard the city wants to remake as San Francisco's newest neighborhood.

The Navy lists Building 253 as having housed ordnance and electronics shops where workers stripped paint and aluminum. But early NRDL records show that the site was used to store equipment and other lab items that were ready for disposal but were "too hot" to mix with regular salvage.

Building 113 was, for a time, leased to the San Francisco Police Department; the Navy calls it a former "tug maintenance and salvage diver's shop." NRDL records show that the building was used to store samples that came from the bomb blasts in Bikini.

The Navy's Richard Mach says that Buildings 539 and 354 are not on the Navy's maps of the shipyard, while Building 253 was shared by the NRDL and the shipyard for storage. Its radiation status, he says, is unknown. And Building 113, he says, was an analytical laboratory for the shipyard, not the NRDL, where radioactive material was stored. The building, he says, has been surveyed and cleared for reuse. Public environmental records on the shipyard do not indicate that any of these buildings have been tested for radiation.

By law, before it can transfer ownership of property in California, the Navy is required to notify the state Department of Health Services of any location where radioactive materials were used or housed, and to show that the site has been cleaned to meet state standards. Several of the sites noted in NRDL records obtained from the National Archives are missing from the list of radiation-related buildings the Navy provided to the state.

In fact, several of the buildings the Navy listed in its own environmental documents as potentially contaminated sites were apparently not mentioned to the state. For instance, a 1992 radiation survey by a Navy contractor identified Building 224, along with several other buildings, as one that "may require further investigation for radioactivity due to former NRDL activities." NRDL records show that the building, previously an air raid shelter, was used to store radiation samples from 1947 until at least 1951.

The Department of Health Services has no record of this building, nor is there a record of follow-up investigation during the nine years since the site was identified by the Navy itself.

Last August, the landfill at the Hunters Point Shipyard caught fire and burned for more than a month before federal and city firefighters could put it out. The Navy did not notify residents or city officials about the fire for nearly three weeks, until plumes of green and yellow smoke floated over the Bayview community that abuts the shipyard. The EPA and most of San Francisco's congressional delegation criticized the Navy for its handling of the matter.

Perhaps more than anything else, the tragedy pointed out something that environment watchers have known for a long time: No one knows what's in the 46-acre landfill on the edge of the shipyard, right next door to the former home of the Naval Radiological Defense Laboratory. If the Navy has its way, no one ever will. Contractors put a temporary cap on the site to put out the fire. As part of its cleanup operation, the Navy has proposed capping the landfill permanently, without further investigation into the toxic stew that lies beneath, which includes many nonradiological pollutants (see sidebar). An official decision on the disposition of the landfill has not been made.

Navy contractors have taken some samples around the perimeter of the area and a few in the middle, but the landfill itself has never been systematically analyzed. This would involve taking samples from the core of the landfill, which runs as deep as 49 feet.

Mach says Navy contractors have done a walk-over survey of the landfill site, which would identify radiation down to about 18 inches below the surface, and also dug trenches about nine feet deep into the landfill, which were then surveyed for radiation. "We looked at record searches, looked at aerial photographs, and tested," Mach says. "Through those mechanisms, you get a very good feel for the landfill. You will never know exactly what's in the landfill unless you dig it up. We do have a very good feel for what's in there, but can't tell you that there's a can of paint here or there.

"We did do test trenches and found radium sources down to about nine feet. We have not gone in and done a full remediation."

Clearly, there is radium in the landfill area. "There was an area at one point designated by the Navy as a radioactive disposal area, and that's where the radium dials are," the EPA's Dean says, referring to thousands of dials with radium-covered components (radium makes them glow in the dark) that were taken off ships and thrown in the landfill. The dials have long been the subject of controversy. Radium decays into radon gas, a known carcinogen. Environmental groups want all of the dials removed. The Navy and regulators are still haggling over how deep to dig for the radium dials.

And there are other questions about the Navy's plan for taking care of radon. Navy contractors found that at least 15 soil samples taken in the vicinity of the landfill contained radon above what would be considered an expected background level. In every case, the high level of radon was attributed to radium dials -- even where no radium dials were found. Soil samples were taken for laboratory analysis "to identify radioisotopes" only if radium- containing dials were found. If excavation encountered no dials, and, therefore, no immediate explanation for the radiation, samples were not taken to the lab. In other words, the Navy assumed that all radon in the soil originated from these radium-containing devices, without even looking for anything else.

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