Fallout: The Past Is Present

The Nuclear Witnesses

Frank Brinton peers out the car window and shakes his head. Hunters Point Shipyard sure doesn't look like it did when he left in 1973. For the nearly 30 years he spent here, the shipyard was a buzz of people, cars, ships, and work. Now it appears desolate and decrepit, except for the trucks driving around. Weeds have consumed most of the pavement surrounding abandoned buildings with broken windows and antique signs. Nonetheless, Brinton can still navigate the cracking streets, noting who worked in this building, what happened in that one; clearly, he's got a map of the shipyard etched inside his head somewhere, particularly as regards the south side of the base, where he spent a lot of his time. In fact, he actually created that south side.

When Brinton started work here in 1945, the shipyard met the bay next to Crisp Avenue, near the shipyard's south entrance. Brinton and his co-workers slowly filled in the adjacent bay with rock and soil from a hillside above the water's edge, sand from somewhere down the coast, and shipyard trash. Decades of filling later, the southern edge of the erstwhile naval base is now about 300 yards to the south, separated only by a narrow inlet from Candlestick Park.

Brinton began work at Hunters Point as a civilian, newly released from the Navy after World War II. His first job was driving a bulldozer in what was then the dump, down on the southeastern tip of the shipyard, close to where some of the Pacific fleet docked. Just about everything discarded from the shipyard went into the dump; Brinton or some other fellow had the job of pushing it into a pile. At the end of most weekdays, the dump pile was set afire. The following morning, he remembers, the charred remains were pushed into the bay. That's just the way things were done back then.

"The whole area along the waterfront we used for fill," he says. "We had quite a big area ... we pretty much dumped wherever we wanted to back then."

Brinton left bulldozer duty after he began coughing up blood, a result, he believes, of breathing the smoke from those fires, some of which almost certainly wafted over the nearby residential neighborhood known as the Bayview. Waste was burned at the shipyard until about 1960, he says, when people started to get uneasy about environmental problems. ("When people like you started writing about things like that," he kids.) Then the waste handlers began burying everything.

By 1947, Brinton had become supervisor of public works, which means that he was in charge of, among many other things, shipyard waste disposal. During his career, there were four different dump sites at the shipyard, the youngest of which is a now-infamous 46-acre landfill that caught fire two years ago and has been the subject of constant controversy in environmental cleanup plans for the decommissioned base.

"Everything came to the dump," he says.

Everything, Brinton explains, included whatever was left behind by ships that came into port -- from food to clothing to equipment -- and, from the shipyard operation itself, just about anything used in 20th-century American industry: a whole lot of lead-based paint, lead-containing batteries, plastic, wood, paper, building materials, concrete, and asphalt. That's not to mention railroad ties soaked with creosote, tons of tires, oil, diesel fuel, asbestos, and a host of industrial chemicals that were routinely used until the mid-1970s, and that now are known to cause cancer.

Among the other interesting substances put in dumps or used as shipyard fill over the years, Brinton says, were large amounts of sandblast material -- the remains of attempts to scour ships contaminated during atomic bomb tests in the South Pacific and, later, other Navy vessels -- and the carcasses of mice, rats, and other animals irradiated during nuclear research at a top-secret laboratory located in the shipyard.

"If anybody had anything they didn't know what to do with, they put it out in containers and it went into the dump," he says. "We had trash pickup just like any other city. We had six different trucks hauling from different places [plus a tank on wheels for liquids]. All of it eventually went into the dump."

San Francisco has big plans for Frank Brinton's dump, along with the rest of the former shipyard. The Navy-owned land is a federal Superfund site and the subject of a decades-long environmental cleanup project, the cost of which has already reached into the hundreds of millions of dollars. City and Navy officials are inking the final details of an agreement to transfer the first of seven parcels of the 500-acre former shipyard to the San Francisco Redevelopment Agency, which, in turn, plans to develop the property into a mix of homes, offices, and retail, entertainment, and open spaces.

But while federal and local representatives fine-tune the details of how each piece of land might be transferred, the Navy still has to come to terms with the environmental sins of the past.

Several key reports relating to the cleanup and transfer of Hunters Point Shipyard were released early this year -- but they lack key information that would, at least arguably, force the Navy to institute a higher level of environmental cleanup than it has planned.

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