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Shame and Courage 

The Navy's unconscionable nuclear recklessness and dissembling at Hunters Point should draw the attention of Congress

Wednesday, May 9 2001
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A well-placed friend of mine tells me that way back in the ancient times of the Carter administration, the federal government was already aware that cleaning up after nuclear operations of the U.S. defense establishment would likely run into the trillions of dollars. Because $1,000,000,000,000 is a fairly daunting figure, even to a congressman, deliberate ignorance became the standard federal response to the wastes left by Cold War weapons production and research. The Navy's dissembling during the attempted transfer of the Hunters Point Shipyard to civilian control is just the latest example of this refusal to face the nuclear past. Still, it's one hell of a shameful and frightening example.

In her series "Fallout," Weekly staff writer Lisa Davis managed to lift the veil from a small corner of Cold War research. After more than 20 years in journalism, I had thought I was essentially unshockable when it came to matters of official malfeasance and lying. What Davis uncovered about the United States Navy has shocked me, and ought to shock every San Franciscan who has a conscience, or a normal concern for his or her own health.

As Davis has laid out in enormously documented detail, the Navy attempted to transfer to the city of San Francisco, for use as a residential and commercial neighborhood, a 500-acre piece of property that the Navy knew had been at the center of the U.S. nuclear research effort. The Navy knew that the Naval Radiological Defense Laboratory, a top-secret facility that migrated through many buildings at the shipyard between 1946 and 1969, had handled significant amounts of plutonium and other extremely long-lived and dangerous radioactive substances. Yet until Davis began to ask questions backed up by months of documentary research, the Navy did not take the first step at finding out what the NRDL had actually done with those substances -- the very ordinary step of looking at the historical record.

Davis looked at as much of that record as the government would allow. Records declassified at her request (the series says "at SF Weekly's request," but there should be no mistake about whose perspicacity forced those records into the public domain) paint a horrifying picture of nuclear recklessness at Hunters Point. There can be little doubt that, in those first years of the Cold War, NRDL scientists thought their research was vital to the country's national security. Thanks to Davis' research -- which showed, among other things, NRDL personnel spreading fission products on Hunters Point docks, just to see if they could clean them up; hanging radioactive material in the bay, just to see what would happen; and dumping huge amounts of radioactive sand and acid in and around the shipyard, just because it was easy -- there can be even less doubt that these researchers mishandled nuclear substances that persist for thousands, or even tens of thousands, of years. As confirmed by a team of Monterey Institute of International Studies researchers commissioned by SF Weekly, there can be no doubt at all that the Navy's pitifully limited plan for finding and dealing with nuclear contamination at Hunters Point is fundamentally flawed.

The Navy has shamed itself by claiming not to have documentation about the use of nuclear materials at Hunters Point (even though such documentation exists just down the highway at the National Archives in San Bruno) and simultaneously claiming that radioactive contamination at the shipyard was minor and limited in scope.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which is supposed to have final say over the shipyard cleanup, has served, shamefully, as a Navy enabler, failing to press for the shipyardwide surveys and detailed documentary research that would help identify contamination at the former naval base.

In November, Mayor Willie Brown -- perhaps not that shamefully, but certainly ignorantly -- signed an agreement that all but ratified ludicrously incomplete plans for cleaning up the shipyard. Under the agreement, the shipyard would be transferred to the city in pieces, over a period of years, with the first transfers happening this year.

"This is a landmark day for the Bayview-Hunters Point community,'' the San Francisco Chronicle quoted Brown as saying. "This means jobs, affordable housing, open space, nonprofit space, new cultural facilities and new economic opportunities for the community.''


At Monday's Board of Supervisors meeting, Supervisor Sophie Maxwell responded to a history of shameful behavior with reason, and more than a little courage. Maxwell announced she would sponsor legislation (to be co-sponsored by Board of Supervisors President Tom Ammiano) that would make citizen health the primary consideration in any plan for transferring the shipyard to civilian uses. In a later interview, Maxwell said the legislation would require the Navy to identify pollutants throughout the shipyard, and clean each piece of the former base to "the highest standard," before any piece is transferred from Navy to city control.

Maxwell's move is courageous not so much because it runs counter to an agreement made by the mayor -- who, to be fair, had no way of knowing anything like the full nuclear history of the shipyard -- but because in making her move, Maxwell put the health of people in her district, which includes Bayview-Hunters Point, ahead of financial considerations, even though the Bayview has long been an economic stepchild and needs jobs desperately. As Maxwell rightly points out, the Bayview has also long been the city's environmental dumping ground, and has long had the cancer and asthma statistics to prove it. And, as Maxwell again rightly notes, if the military had slung radioactive waste around the Presidio like so much fertilizer, the wealthy neighborhoods abutting that former Army base -- and very likely the city as a whole -- would be up in arms.

There is reason to hope the city is getting itself up in arms, finally, about the Navy and Hunters Point. Citing Davis' revelation of "unbelievable levels of nuclear radiation" handled, and mishandled, at Hunters Point, Supervisor Aaron Peskin also stood Tuesday in support of Maxwell's proposal to deal "very harshly" with the Navy.

Saul Bloom, executive director of ARC Ecology, a San Francisco organization that has played a lead role for years in watchdogging the Navy's shipyard cleanup, notes that a recent fire at the shipyard landfill -- a fire that burned for weeks before the Navy notified anyone -- galvanized community opinion against the Navy's handling of the situation. Coming on the heels of the fire, Bloom says, "Fallout" has led many in the Bayview community -- and, at long last, in City Hall -- to understand that they'd been "bamboozled" by the Navy's blithe assertions about the levels of contamination in different parts of the shipyard.

Many people and organizations have worked for years, attempting to get the Navy to come clean about the incredible pollution at Hunters Point Shipyard. The Navy has resisted, consistently claiming it lacked documentation. "Fallout" has stripped the Navy of its ability to claim ignorance, at least as regards nuclear activity. There are 650 cubic feet of records on NRDL operations sitting on the shelves of the National Archives. These records remain classified on national security grounds. Someone outside the Navy needs to examine those records -- the most recent of which is more than 30 years old -- and determine what part of them can be released.

Environmental groups, community organizations, city officials, and even determined weekly newspapers might work for years without advancing such a declassification effort very far. Some members of Congress, on the other hand, deal with classified material on a regular basis.

Senators Feinstein and Boxer, do you read me?

About The Author

John Mecklin

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