Fallout

Newly released documents indicate the Navy dumped far more nuclear waste than it's ever acknowledged in a major commercial fishery just 30 miles west of San Francisco. Why won't the government even study the Farallon Islands Nuclear Waste Site?

The contractor did not look at, or consider, any possible human health hazards in the scope of its investigation. Nonetheless, the report goes on to suggest that a monitoring program be put in place to evaluate future risk at the nuclear waste site: "Periodic sampling of commercial species from the vicinity of the FINWS or development of market place monitoring program may provide adequate warning of any human health risk."

Again, no such monitoring program was put in place.

Another contractor, Ecology and Environment Inc., reviewed the Farallon dump site in 1988 and found that it could qualify as a federal Superfund site, which would make it a priority for cleanup and federal funds. But EPA officials disagreed, and never sought a Superfund designation.

Now, the U.S. EPA has redefined history and is suggesting, incorrectly, that scientific study has found no elevated radiation levels at the Farallon site.

"We studied it years ago and found that there was nothing there above background radiation, nothing above what would be occurring naturally," says Lisa Fasano, spokeswoman for the EPA in San Francisco. "We haven't done anything and wouldn't do anything. There is no monitoring out there."

The Monterey Institute of International Studies' Davis and other academic scientists say that, at a minimum, the Farallon waste site should be regularly monitored. And, they say, such monitoring would be a relatively simple matter that involved the testing of blubber samples from sea lions and fish-eating birds that are high in the food chain and, therefore, accumulators of environmental toxins, including radiation.


Only a handful of people have ever seen the radioactive graveyard at the bottom of the Gulf of the Farallones National Marine Sanctuary. Fewer have studied it, and those who have tend to disagree on one another's findings. But they tend to disagree in a predictable way. That is to say: Academic scientists tend to believe the undersea nuclear dump poses a far greater potential danger than do their government-commissioned (and -paid) counterparts.

Without further study, there is no way to know, precisely, how much of a danger the Farallon site poses. Clearly, though, the government's position on the site is riddled with inconsistencies and outright falsehood.

The number of barrels in the Farallon waste site -- supposedly, 47,500 -- comes from an estimate done in 1974 by an Atomic Energy Commission researcher named Arnold Joseph, who never intended it to be a definitive count. In his report, Joseph cautioned that the number was based only on the limited information that he could find at the time.

Nonetheless, as years passed, the number somehow became a "fact" cited over and over by federal officials. So did the supposed "low-level" nature of the waste.

And as these "facts" are repeated, the Navy and the Department of Energy cling to the inherently contradictory position that, while they don't know a great deal about what was dumped in the Farallon Islands Nuclear Waste Site, what's there is not dangerous.

Documents obtained by SF Weeklyappear to bring the federal government's position on the Farallon waste site into significant doubt. Government reports on the contents of the site do not take into account the aircraft carrier Independence, which was apparently packed with huge amounts of radioactive materials before it was sunk, very probably in the Farallones. The NRDL's own records strongly suggest that far larger amounts of plutonium, uranium, and other long-lived radioactive substances were dumped in the Farallones than the government has acknowledged. And two government officials say the Navy has acknowledged dumping thousands of barrels of high-level, long-lived, "special" nuclear waste at the site.

There are hundreds of boxes of records on the activities of the NRDL sitting in the National Archives and Records Administration in San Bruno and the Department of Energy's records repository in Las Vegas. Government files also contain information on the University of California laboratories that did nuclear research and shipped their waste to the NRDL at Hunters Point, which then dumped it in the Farallones.

Apparently, those records haven't been reviewed to assess what radioactive poisons made it to the bottom of the sea. Without such a review, followed by additional research in the Farallones, and some regime of monitoring of the undersea dump site, no government agency or academic researcher can say, definitively, whether the nuclear waste resting off the coast of San Francisco does or does not pose a danger to humans.

But this much is clear: The past -- and the future -- of the Hunters Point Shipyard, the Naval Radiological Defense Laboratory, and the Farallon Islands Nuclear Waste Site are utterly, inextricably linked. The long-lived radioactive materials that were used at the NRDL during the early days of the nation's nuclear research program have not gone away. They will pose a potential danger for thousands or tens of thousands of years. Whether they are at the bottom of the sea near the Farallon Islands, at a decommissioned shipyard that the city of San Francisco wants to remake as its newest neighborhood, or at some other location, these exceedingly long-lived poisons are still with us.

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